Weapon of the righteous, bane of the indolent, the humble pinto bean has ennobled humanity for at least five millennia.
Black-eyed peas are often consumed on New Year’s day to invite good luck for the coming annum, but it is the pinto that has built civilizations, feeding armies and families alike, and brought depth and dignity to countless chili pots. It is the most popular bean in the United States, though often tragically confined to a binary servitude of refried or whole.
The pinto was ever-present in our household as I grew up, but only in one form: boiled in an infernal greasy morass of sowbelly and onions. This was some kind of holdover from my dad’s Depression-era childhood on a Kansas farm. Whenever memory stirred him, he would head to the garage to cut off a slab of salt pork with a hacksaw from a carcass hanging in the rafters. He’d throw that slab into a large kettle with onions and beans and, after a couple of days of soaking, boiling and sitting out uncovered to encourage bacterial growth, we were compelled to eat it. It was almost two decades before I discovered that beans could taste good.
I was 17 and had been invited to an elaborate dinner hosted by one of my dad’s law firm colleagues, Josephine Hayes. She was an archetype of her times; by turns erudite or accessible, elegant or raucous, occasionally married and by necessity tougher and bolder than any of her male counterparts. Her dinners were, I discovered, a master class in character building.
We started off slow with an inoffensive salad, followed by evermore daring plates including, but not limited to, escargot, a selection of livers, an amphibian course, and culminating in braised sweetbreads (which, for the uninitiated, are neither sweet nor bread).
There was also a soup, and here, in an evening of wonder and terror, was an epiphany: sowbelly and beans as I had never seen it before. A few tender pintos floated on a creamy but rusticated surface, like the face of the moon, but crosshatched with long, slender chives and a suggestion of thyme leaves. My dinner companions passed around a bottle of sherry, each pouring a splash into their soup. I did the same, and was transported.
I asked Jo for the recipe, surprising myself and confounding my father. She graciously obliged and also promoted me from seat-filler to probationary rotation on her guest list, a position I retained for 15 years before upgrading to semi-acceptable diner.
What follows is my own adaptation of Jo’s formula, years in the making and streamlined for a pressure cooker in the interests of time and convenience, dispensing with presoaking in any case and readily mutable into a vegetarian version. Philistines will take issue with the dubious digestibility of beans, but angels and ministers of grace ask only that we not blind ourselves to salvation: The more one partakes, the better the body adapts.
Jo Hayes’ Sowbelly and Beans
Serves 4 to 6 after about an hour
2 cups dried pinto beans (or almost any bean you’ve got, like or desire)
Salt pork, between ¼ to 1 pound (more on this later; skip it if you want to go green)
1 big onion, quartered (white or sweet; red doesn’t work here)
1 head of garlic, stripped of loose skin but otherwise intact 2 bay leaves
Shot of sherry or cider vinegar
Optional but worthwhile:
Another big onion, carrot and leek (excluding top), all chopped fine
Cayenne or smoked paprika
Italian parsley, chives or thyme leaves or some combination for garnish
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