Mama’s Corn Bread & Beans
Try as we might, we can’t escape our culinary DNA.
My mother was not nostalgic about many things in life, but when it came to corn bread and beans, she was a sentimental fool. She and my father had been teenagers during the Great Depression, and the memory of those hard times was still raw when they married, in 1942. “Many a day, corn bread and beans was all we had to eat,” one of them was likely to say.
Mother made sure her three well-fed children had an inkling of what the previous generation had endured. At least a couple of times a year, a big pot of pinto beans seasoned with salt pork would appear on the stove, slowly simmering down to almost mush, along with a pan of yellow corn bread, fragrant and steaming. We would gather around our 1950s-era Formica dinette table and fill our cereal bowls and plates. I’m afraid that my two younger brothers and I rolled our eyes, although never so that Mother or Daddy could see us. Still, something must have sunk in because I often find myself calling up remembrances of meals past as a way of understanding, if only a little, where I came from. Food is about many things—nourishment, pleasure, and culture among them—but it’s also about recognizing who you are, and why.
Some of my most vivid memories start in Cameron, the small Central Texas town where my father grew up. At the family’s house, corn bread and beans may have gotten them through difficult times, but Sunday dinner was the ritual that knit them together year in and year out. After church, my grandmother would head to the henhouse with a sharp ax in one hand and a bent coat hanger in the other. In a minute, she would have hooked a nice young frying hen. One whack of the ax on a tree stump and that hen was history, although its headless body continued to run and flop wildly around the yard for what seemed like forever.
The family would gather around the big oak table in the dining room and survey the bounty: a platter of chicken, of course, plus bowls of black-eyed peas, green beans cooked with a pinch of sugar and at least a ton of bacon grease, a relish tray of sweet pickles, and a basket of rolls kept warm under a napkin.
If my father had been forced to live the way he grew up and eat the food of his childhood for the rest of his life, he would not have considered it a hardship. He was a small-town boy and proud of it. The immutability of Sunday dinner and the simplicity of our own family ritual of corn bread and beans only reinforced this.
Mother was cut from different cloth. She, too, was from small-town Texas—in fact, from a succession of small towns that concluded with Mercedes, in the Rio Grande Valley. Like my father, she and her siblings had grown up eating homey Southern and Texan dishes—hamburger steaks, pot roasts, enchiladas, and produce from the valley’s huge farms and citrus orchards. Just as in Cameron, Sunday dinner in Mercedes meant fried chicken, though her mother would wring the bird’s neck instead of chopping its head off.
But corn bread and beans and those other down-home dishes were only part of who she was—and in her mind, not the most important part. She left Mercedes, went to the University of Texas in Austin, and married my father. From the time I can first remember her, when I was about four, she seemed a glamorous creature, her dark hair swept up in a mass of curls, brown suede platform heels on her size-five-and-a-half feet. She read nonstop, saving recipes from fancy magazines for dishes like veal à la casino, crème brûlée, and vichyssoise. But everyday meals consisted of Middle American staples like chicken salad and a hamburger-and-tomato concoction she christened Boy Scout Hash.
It’s easy to see Mother’s kitchen—and her life—as a battleground where corn bread and beans vied for supremacy with crown pork roast and its ilk. I see that same battle, in fact, reproduced in my own life every year during the holidays. At first I blithely think, Well, we’ll have turkey and dressing this year because, after all, it is our beloved family custom. But then I get antsy. I drag six or seven cookbooks off the shelves. I convince myself I must try something new and different.
Just the other day, looking for ideas, I pulled out one of Mother’s old cookbooks. It was the Better Homes & Gardens CookBook, 1946 edition, her indispensable recipe resource, with dozens of clippings and index cards tucked inside. It had sat on the counter next to the toaster for nearly five decades.
Cracking the book open, I suddenly realized what I wanted to make: corn bread and pinto beans. It was a cold, wet night, and I had some cornmeal in the pantry. I turned the now-fragile pages, trying not to tear them.
But, search as I might, I couldn’t find the recipes I sought. I must have hunted for a good ten minutes, but nothing: not under Breads, not under Vegetables, not under Beans. And then it dawned on me: There were no recipes because Mother didn’t need them. Veal à la casino—that she needed a recipe for. Corn bread and beans she knew by heart.