One of my warmest childhood memories is a large simmering pot full of beans on the stove. The intoxicating aroma of bean soup, as Mother loved to call it, filled our kitchen more times than I can even begin to count. It was a staple on our table -- especially when cooler weather arrived.
It’s amazing how we associate certain foods with changes in climate. Mother’s food choices were even more dependable than a weatherman for predicting the upcoming forecast. As soon as the crisp fall air appeared -- along with our coats and sweaters -- the navy beans were washed and the heavy pot filled with water.
I watched Mother as she carefully prepared the beans to be placed in the pot. Sitting on the counter beside her was the remnants of what used to be a whole ham. As if it had been picked by vultures, all that remained was the bone with a few pieces of meat barely hanging on. Into the pot it went, followed by the dried beans. The pot was then filled three quarters of the way with water.
Back then we didn’t have a clue to what constituted a gourmet cook. Mother just cooked the way her mother did and her grandmothers and aunts before her. They learned to cook with passed-down traditions that guaranteed wholesome flavor. Two ingredients Mother used in her bean soup were foreign to me: bay leaves and whole peppercorns.
Although they were readily available at our Piggly Wiggly store, they didn’t appear in any of our recipes, with the exception of bean soup. The concept of putting a couple of whole dried leaves and some petrified small black pellets into the pot seemed odd to me but I was assured they added the perfect flavor.
Slowly the soup simmered like a caldron on the stove for the better part of a day. Occasionally, we checked it and stirred it to make sure it wasn’t sticking. The beans plumped up and the water thickened around the ham bone as the bubbles slowly made their way to the surface. The bay leaves bobbed about but managed to stay afloat on the top of the soup in spite of the uneven surface caused by the bursting bubbles.
As suppertime approached, we could feel our mouths watering. It was then that another one of my all-time favorite recipes was prepared. Mother reached into a bottom cabinet and pulled out an old, heavy, black cast iron skillet. A blob of shortening was plopped onto the bottom of the skillet and it was placed into the oven, which was in the process of heating up.
Buttermilk, eggs, cornmeal and more shortening were stirred together and poured into the now-hot skillet, making a dramatic, sizzling noise. Then it was placed back in the oven to rise and bake into perfect golden brown cornbread.
This was our cue to prepare the table. I grabbed bowls, plates and utensils while my sister grabbed the glasses and prepared them to be filled with syrupy sweet iced tea. Like ants diligently working within their colony, things happened quickly around the Ballard house in preparation of our mouth-watering meal.
As soon as “Amen” was said, Mother filled each of our bowls with the rich, creamy bean soup. Although she already had removed what was left of the bay leaves, she warned us to be careful should we come face-to-face with a peppercorn. I carefully checked each spoonful. I think Mother was just scared we might get choked on it, but as a little boy, I thought it might make me sick or, at the very least, sprout into a pepper tree in my stomach.
Thinking back on our bean soup meals, there was always a precursor to us having them besides just the cooler weather. Every Sunday that a baked ham filled a platter in the center of our table, I knew bean soup could not be far behind. The reason was simple. Money was tight and when a ham was purchased at our house it had to serve as a week full of meals -- including many sandwiches. When all the meat was cut away from the bone, without wasting anything, Mother used it to provide flavor for her famous bean soup.
As autumn creeps in a little more each week and the temperatures start to chill, my memories shift to lazier days and very different times. Times when it was normal for the entire family to actually sit around the dinner table without cellphones or video games, discussing their days instead of answering texts.
To me, it didn’t matter if we were eating bean soup and cornbread or another one of our simple Southern meals, our family times around the table are some of my fondest memories.
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