A mess of beans.

th-1The temperature is about five below zero, which isn’t unusual for an Anchorage winter. Even though we’re hard by Cook Inlet, it still gets chilly in the winter.

This hasn’t been an ordinary winter, though. We’ve had hardly any snow and temperatures in the 30s and even the low 40s, which is just against God. When it finally started snowing the other day even non-skiers like me were greatly relieved.

But apparently my blood has thinned, because as the thermometer settled toward the zero mark I was unreasonably cold. Wool socks weren’t keeping my feet warm. A fleece layer was necessary even in the car. I considered pulling out the long johns and maybe even zipping my coat.

Clearly what was needed was a mess of beans.

My mom, who was originally from Tennessee, used the phrase “a mess” to describe not just an untidy room but also a big batch of something good. So did a former co-worker, who once spoke of a hunger for a “mess of beans.”

That’s why DF covered two cups of pintos with water when he got home Friday night. Below-zero weekend temps had been predicted and he wanted us to be ready.


Nourishing us twice

The next morning he took a large ham bone from the freezer and put it in the slow cooker with a little water. The two simmered for a couple of hours while we did chores and ran errands. Next DF strained the broth into a glass measuring cup and set it outdoors, then carved off all the ham scraps he could.

The scraps went back into the slow cooker along with the beans, some chopped onion and shredded carrot, two types of stock from the boiling bag, and seasonings. The ham juice came back indoors when the fat had solidified; the defatted stock went into the soup and the fat into the freezer.

To paraphrase Thoreau, that soup nourished us twice: when we ate it, obviously, but also throughout the day as its aroma perfumed the entire house. At 5:30 p.m. I baked cornbread (DF greased the skillet with some of that frozen ham fat) and the two of us sat down to what we considered the perfect winter supper.

The beans were perfectly tender and the broth was rich and meaty but not overly salty, with a touch of sweetness from whatever had been in the last boiling bag. A squirt from the mustard vinegar bottle perfectly complemented that slightly sugary note.


A dish that improves with time

As a single mom in Philadelphia the baby and I practically lived on Great Northern beans. No exaggeration: We’d eat it at least five or six times a week. Once I got married it was years before I could even think about bean soup.

During my more recent lean years (divorce debt, return to college), I ate a lot of pinto beans. In part that was because they were cheap, but it was also because they were easy to fix in the slow cooker and they lasted for days.

And now? DF and I make a pot of beans at least once a month, sometimes more often. They’re nourishing, they’re filling and, yes, they’re cheap. We also like the fact that they’re made with stuff that might otherwise have been thrown out: the bone from the ham, the kitchen scraps that turned into soup stock, and the dregs of mustard and brine from the “empty” pickle jar that combine to a savory seasoning.

Right now the slow cooker crock is sitting on the ledge of the fireplace insert. We plan to dip into it whenever we get hungry today; ditto the half-skillet of leftover cornbread. I’ve already had a bowl and can attest that yep, some things do get better after sitting in the fridge overnight.

In our case, the “fridge” was Seward’s Icebox: DF set the crock outdoors last night when we’d finished eating. Its contents were frozen solid when he brought them in before leaving for church. Now they’re ready to help us combat the 15-below shivers. Long johns and wool socks are fine chill-chasers, but sometimes you also just want a mess of beans.

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  1. I’m a northern girl but we always said a mess of beans. And I learned to make corn-pone. LOVE IT! I bought a sad looking cast iron skillet at a yard sale for $3 and brought it back to life with a lot of elbow grease. And I can make sweet tea with the best of them. My Aunt said its in the blood. It must be.
    I love your stories. Its a frugal escape!
    Stay warm my friend.

    • Donna Freedman

      My cast-iron skillet has a frugal backstory: I found it in the “free” box at a yard sale. A little steel wool and some oil and it was as good as new. Sometimes I wonder how I ever cooked without it.

      • Last night, before I read your column this morning, I had gotten out my last container of ham and broth left over from Christmas. Planned to make bean soup for dinner, but saw I ran out of great northern. Am going to try the pinto, as I am not driving out in the snow for any. Have leftover spaghetti from 2 days ago for lunch. I was wondering how you keep your cast iron from sticking? I bought a new one a few years back and if I fry something in it, it sticks terrible even though I grease it well after cleaning. I had followed directions and seasoned it at the beginning too. Now I don’t use it for anything like bacon, sausage,etc. I just keep it for cornbread, eggs, french toast.

        • Donna Freedman

          Mine was apparently pretty old when I found it in the free box. I do re-season it every now and then. Is there a manufacturer’s website (Lodge or whatever) that could offer help? Or an 800 number?

          • We have Lodge cast iron pans. Despite carefully following manufacturer’s instructions my pans would stick so we set them aside.
            My husband wanted to start using them again, so he uses them for cooking eggs and sausage. When they cool off they are washed (water only), dried, and re-greased with shortening. We’ve found vegetable oil doesn’t season the pans very well. The temperature of the food and the temperature of the pan also affects the food sticking. It’s taken a long time but our pans are starting to become non-stick.

        • We have Lodge cast iron pans that were bought new and unseasoned. Despite the fact that I carefully followed the seasoning instructions the pans would stick, even after starting all over again.

          My husband started using them again and we used them for cooking eggs and sausage. Every time we use them they are cleaned (with water only), dried and immediately re-greased with shortening. The temperature of the food going into the pan and the temperature of the pan also affect the sticking problem. Slowly but surely our pans are becoming more non-stick.

      • Your free beats my $3! But I still love that pan. I feel all old school when I use it.
        Ok, this might be gross but this might help your commenters with their pans, don’t wash them at all. I wipe mine out really well and that’s it. I read that you weren’t supposed to wash them and I haven’t. Everything just slides right out of it and we haven’t gotten sick.

        • Donna Freedman

          Someone quoted in the book “White Trash Cooking” said her mother never washed their skillet, merely “renched it out” with cornmeal. That way she always had the next batch of cornbread seasoned. Hey, whatever works.

  2. Sounds delicious. And with an East Coast blizzard expected over the next two days, I’m wondering which bag of beans to make: kidney, pinto, 16 bean, dried peas, navy or lima.

    • Donna Freedman

      Make ’em all by turns. Why discriminate?
      (But you might want to hike over to the store for a bottle of Beano, too, unless you live alone and can be as combustible as you want to be.)
      Stay warm and stay off the street until all the folks who think they can drive in the snow have finished running into one another.

      • I’ve never needed the Beano for beans, but have considered it after eating broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage close together.

        People who think they can drive in the snow: I intend to stay in as long as possible, as I live in the part of PA where snow removal is also known as “Spring, God or Do It Yourself”. I have annual leave built up, so will be able to be paid for being off.

      • It is going to be the navy beans. And I’m going to use up the ketchup packets, sweet & sour sauce, BBQ, etc packets in the mugs in the fridge, before I use the brown sugar.

        • Donna Freedman

          A frugalist after my own heart! (See “mustard vinegar.”)

          • Beans have been made and some of them eaten. I used ketchup packets (about 20), duck sauce packets (sweet, 8), 3 pancake syrups from McDonald’s, several packets of mustard, taco sauce packets (8-10), i honey mustard from chik-filet, 1/2 cup of leftover cranberry sauce, about 3 tablespoons Smuckers grape jam still in the jar, soy sauce packets, and a chopped onion. The smell of them cooking was enough to make me crazy, waiting for them to be ready to eat.

          • Donna Freedman

            Now that’s cleaning out the fridge! Good for you. Wish I’d had a bite of those beans, because they sound really good.

  3. I am a lifelong vegetarian, and I love beans. They are very versatile, so nutritious, and I love the way they taste. I am a (7th generation) native Californian, so most of the time I use Mexican or Italian seasonings, and plenty of good local cheese and organic vegetables with my beans. Delicious every time!

  4. I first heard the term “mess of” when visiting my ex-husband’s mother for the first time in 1973, when she sent us to the creek to pick poke salad for supper. Stewed beans (the great northern/pinto mix popular in Tennessee) cooked with ham scraps, fried potatoes, boiled poke, fried okra, homemade sauerkraut, and “lazy” bread made me an instant devotee of southern po’-folks foods and cooking! To this day, I make a mess of beans once or twice a month. Sure wish I could find poke. Commercially-grown turnip greens – though good – are a distant 2nd choice.

  5. jestjack

    What a good story of frugality. Funny how you mentioned that you ate beans a lot during “challenging times” and it was years before you could even think about bean soup. My Dear Dad talks about beings so poor as they had “lima bean sandwiches” for lunch/dinner and like you he couldn’t stand bean soup. Now he would rather have bean soup than steak. My thought is, he finds it comforting….and the fact that it’s a cheap meal doesn’t hurt either. Thank you for this “comforting” article….

  6. It must have been pinto bean weekend. I made Pinto bean “burgers” yesterday. There one of my faves. I cook large batches of beans and keep them in the freezer for when I want to make bean burgers or add them to salad or pasta. I do the same with bean soup.

  7. Carolina Cooper

    Your blog never fails to delight me and put a smile on my face. Today, it made me think of my Mom (b. 1914) and grandma (b.1894) who were born in Ozark, Alabama. Whenever they were cooking greens (not beans) for a crowd, they referred to them as a “mess of greens”—usually turnip greens with ham hocks. Also, growing up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, we would often catch and then eat “a mess of hard shell crabs.” As I sit here in New Hampshire, waiting for the blizzard(with a full larder and NO intention of going out for the next 3 days), I had to laugh out loud at your comment about staying off of the road until folks who think they can drive in snow get through running into each other!!!

  8. Cathy in NJ

    My Slavic grandmother loved to use the winter as a fridge. What a nice image and memory.

  9. being a southern girl I have always heard and used the term “mess of beans”. I don’t think geography has anything to do with loving food and enjoying the comfort that goes with it. we are all sisters anyway. enjoy, y’all.

  10. Christine Daly

    Donna, I received the book from the drawing. Thank you very much!

    • Donna Freedman

      You are so welcome! You — and other readers — should remember that there’s no one-win rule. Come back and enter the giveaways each week. (Some readers have won multiple times.)

  11. Yup. I cooked up a pot of pinto beans this weekend too, but I used the Christmas ham bone for split pea soup this weekend as well. I was chilly and I stayed in the warm kitchen all weekend. Filled up the spaces in the freezer. I’ll bet there are people all over the world who did the same thing!

  12. I grew up in the Appalachian Mtns of NC. People there still cook messes of food. A mess of (fill in) means a generous amount. Therefore, one could eat ones fill of it. You hunt / harvest messes, too. Every spring we hit the pastures to pick messes of wild mustard. Makes my mouth water to think about it.

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