Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Appalachian Beans in my Dreams

This week we drove 1100 miles to South Carolina and back for a 3-hour video shoot. Our route took us the length of West Virginia, over the mountains of southwest Virgina, and across North Carolina. This is the heart of Appalachia, one of the most distinctive cultural areas in America. 
I've loved Appalachia ever since I read Catherine Marshall's "Christy" as a kid and started picking bluegrass classics on the guitar during the folk music craze of the sixties.  I've camped nearly the length of the mountain chain from Maine to Georgia and hiked to the top of Mt. Marcy, Mt. Washington, Mt. Rogers, Mt. Mitchell and Clingman's Dome. I feel as at home in these woods as I do in my own back yard. 

On any road trip we try to balance the desire to explore and appreciate the countryside with the need to get to our destination. We get off the interstate when we can and drive the back roads through small towns looking for places where the locals eat, always asking our hometown server what the specialties are. This time we did that, but for mile after mile, all we found were strip malls and fast food chains, an endless stream of Shoney's, Bojangles, KFC/Taco Bell, CiCi's, Buffalo's, and McWendy King. We'd get to the end of the strip, drive a couple of miles through rolling hills and the sequence would begin again, usually anchored by a Walmart. Try as we might we found not one locally owned restaurant. Our last day, wending our way through southern West Virgina looking for a homemade breakfast we finally gave up and pulled into the Cracker Barrel.
What's happening to Appalachia? What's happening to America? Everyone complains that Walmart puts local shops out of business, but is anyone concerned that chain restaurants are killing the local cuisine? We ended up eating at Buffalo's, Fatz and the Cracker Barrel, and all were packed with locals, groups of friends celebrating the end of the work week, young couples enjoying Saturday night, families sharing brunch after church. But they were all eating food chosen for them by corporate interests located far from their homeland with little awareness of local specialties.

When we got home I looked up beans in Appalachia and discovered that in West Virginia they make something called soup beans, which are plain pinto beans cooked with fatback or other porky pieces, served with cornbread. Fatback is not going to happen in my vegetarian kitchen, but I managed to make some beans that filled the void we felt after a thousand miles of laminated menus.

Mushroom Beans with Ramps
1 cup pinto beans, soaked overnight, drained
1 small onion
1 bay leaf
mushroom broth
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/3 cup dried mushrooms
5-6 ramps
chopped red onion

Cover the drained beans with mushroom broth to cover; add the olive oil, the whole onion and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook until the beans are not quite tender.

Meanwhile, cover the dried mushrooms with boiling water and let stand until the mushrooms are softened. Drain the mushrooms, reserving liquid. Sometimes dried mushrooms are a little gritty, so wash well until running water, then pat dry with paper towels and chop fine. Add to the beans. Strain the soaking liquid (I use a paper coffee filter) and add to the beans.

When the beans are about tender, add a splash of cider vinegar and liquid smoke to taste. Correct seasoning.

Wash the ramps well. Trim the roots, then thinly slice the bulbs and stems. Stack the leaves and slice fine. Saute the bulbs and stems in a little butter. When they're transparent, add the leaves and stir until wilted. Add the ramps to the beans when you're ready to serve.

The traditional accompaniment to West Virginia Soup Beans is an old-fashioned cabbage relish called chow-chow, a particular favorite of my mother. I couldn't find any locally (why didn't I buy some when I was in WV?!?) so we're using a corn salsa from Trader Joe's and some fresh chopped red onion. The added flavors give the beans a nice kick.

We ate these beans with homemade cornbread and pretended we were sitting at a little Mom 'n' Pop filled with locals and bluegrass and tables covered in oilcloth, with a view of the New River. We'd like to believe that place is out there; we just couldn't find it.


  1. How sad that we have lost all those independent restaurants, but I'm looking forward to trying out some of your recipes. Great pictures, too.

  2. Another wonderful post! We have the
    experience driving north. And we've given up each time and eaten at a Cracker Barrel, too.
    Great pics!