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Beans, Beans, The Glorious Fruit Essay

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On any given day, nearly 14% of the U.S. population eats beans, according to government statistics. Many West Virginians, particularly those from the southern coalfields, are probably already starting to chuckle at the percentage. Multiple that maybe by seven (98%) if counting supper plates in the mountain state and while you’re at it, change that “given day” to every day.

To say that “brown beans”--the typical reference for pinto beans, actually--are a staple is understating it. The prevalence on plates in the mountains even defies comparison or relevance to other regional foods. To wit, folks in Philadelphia aren’t eating cheese steak sandwiches, nor are Buffalo natives gnawing on hot wings daily. Maybe (but I doubt it) South Carolinians are eating grits as often as we eat beans but I’ll put our consumption in pounds (tonnage ?) in beans against theirs in grits any day of the week.

So how did something not grown to any significant extent in West Virginia evolve into “our food?” Like many things for mountaineers, we got them from the Indians but not the ones that readily come to mind. That’s Indians as in South American Indians. Phaseolus vulgaris, pinto beans and cousins, originated from a common bean ancestor domesticated in Peru or close by 7,000 years ago. In fact, “pinto” is a Spanish word for painted, coined to describe the mottled or seemingly painted specks on this variety of bean.

They made their way through the Central American isthmus to Mexico then (thankfully) took an eastward swing to the Appalachians and northward but no farther than West Virginia for all intents and purposes. (Navy beans, appropriately referred to also as “northern beans” are the preference up there.) History tells us that W...


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... in modern times. Mountain homemakers are not, as often as their mothers and grandmothers, putting a pot of beans on a stove to cook all day. Nevertheless, the taste for “pintos” can never be completely satiated for hill folk. When marrying my Louisville, Kentucky-born bride 27+ years ago, the one stipulation was that she learn to “cook a pot of beans.” Today, usually as a winter dish, my family eats pintos with ham hocks that are, in my estimation, the best pot of beans you’ll find west of Huntington. To my great satisfaction, my three children--all Louisville-born like their Mom--have a taste for pintos.

Oh yeah, for those of you who might accept that 2% of West Virginians might not be eating beans on any given day, accounting, perhaps, for babies, don’t be too hasty. Mountain Mommas have been known to mash up pintos and feed them to infants.






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