This one time in college, Laura Picazo and I got to talking about culture and food and she asked me, "What's a traditional Oklahoma meal?"
Laura's ancestors were Basques and French who had emigrated to Mexico and eventually to Texas. Laura taught me how to season my taco meat.
"Beans and cornbread," I said. Soon we had scheduled an evening for me to come to her apartment and prepare what I considered the most traditional of meals from my cultural background, a meal my mother made all the time.
It is also a meal that reveals our socio-economic roots. My parents both worked hard to rise within the middle class and both came from parents who were in that blessed American generation where millions rose from poverty or really hard rural life to enter the middle class. Take my grandpa Nixon, Pappoo. In the years of the Great Depression his family would go days eating beans for every meal. Despite that, he still loved them with affection all of his life. Pappoo fought in Africa and Italy in the Second World War, was permanently disabled during the landing on Anzio Beach, used his GI Bill to get vocational training, and went to work for the Post Office, eventually rising to become a Post Master. When he retired he had a lake home, a boat, and you should have seen how excited he was when he bought a Cadillac. The Great American Story.
My mother let her dried pinto beans simmer for hours with a ham hock, making the house smell good. Then she did something that I've not encountered elsewhere (until I googled today looking for a picture to use and learned others do do it), she made these flour drop dumplings that went into the beans at the end of the cooking. That day I cooked for Laura was the first time I attempted this and my dumplings didn't turn out quite right. (Note: this picture is a random one from the internet and those dumplings only closely resemble my mother's).
This too reveals the poor roots of this dish--simple ways to gain a few more calories with basic ingredients and a way to vary a dish people ate repeatedly.
As a child I disliked beans, but I loved to eat those dumplings and the ham hock. The dumplings had a magical rich flavor soaked up from the beans.
I e-mailed Mom some foodways questions, and she wrote about this dish: "The dish I remember the most and definitely a favor was brown beans with drop egg dumplings cooked in the beans. Cornbread was baked in a thin cookie sheet, so it was crisp. I think comfort food was probably a holdover from her childhood when she started cooking for her dad, grandpa, and Frank at age seven."
Her sister commented added:
Mammoo called them "depression noodles." She mixed only one egg with flour to get a sticky mess. She dropped them by spoonfuls in the boiling bean broth. Pappoo didn't like them, but since Mammoo did, he didn't mind. Mammoo said when she was a girl growing up, she had beans that way at a friend's house. She loved it that way ever since. She also made them just for herself in chicken broth. When I was sick, that was what I wanted her to make me. Boy, I miss her. Thanks for taking me home again!
When I fixed them for Laura, I also prepared cornbread and then served it all with a dill pickle spear and a whole green onion. Laura said, "What are the pickle and the green onion for?" And I answered, "I don't know, that's always what Mom served with the beans."
And, really, when you are cooking an old family dish, that's what matters.
The previous post in this series told about the changing role of rice in my food history.