A MEAL OF BEANS AND cornbread isn’t fancy, but it’s one we just plain love. It’s as much a Texas tradition as flying the Lone Star, remembering the Alamo, and saying “y’all.” Diners aren’t likely to find this lowbrow combo in a restaurant. Sure, at times any decent cafe will offer sides of fresh hot cornbread and slow-simmered pinto beans. But the unadorned twosome is rarely considered a complete dinner anywhere but in your own kitchen, or your mama’s. Actually, when I was growing up, my father was the chief proponent and preparer of cornbread and beans. Mother cooked much fancier fare, but she sure did enjoy his beans and cornbread. (And not just because she didn’t have to cook that night!)
Because both corn and pinto beans are easy to grow, they have been staples for Texans for a good century and a half, and even many lifelong urbanites still relish the simple fare that was enjoyed and handed down, way back when, by their pioneer forebears. Within the beans-and-cornbread tradition, however, there are scores of variations on each dish. Depending on various families, geographic areas, or dietary preferences you investigate, you can find everything from hot-water cornbread and unleavened pone to vegetarian beans and pintos that have been fried—deliciously!—in lard. Besides the nostalgia factor, there are many other reasons beans and cornbread make a great meal: Both foods are filling, nutritious, and way cheap. But best of all, these dishes are downright easy to cook, no matter how full your plate overall, and odds are all the ingredients you need are sitting in your pantry and fridge.
Here are four recipes to try (or sneer at, if you’re a veteran hand at fixing this homey combo). The bean recipes are from my 84-year-old father, G. W. Dingus of Pampa; one is basic but tasty, the other gussied up and good as all get-out. The cornbread variations come from two well-known sources of Texas culinary know-how: the influential Helen Corbitt, who ran Neiman Marcus’ Zodiac Room restaurant for more than a decade, and Cheryl and Bill Jamison, the husband-and-wife team who are cookbook authors as well as food historians. Now, get out in the kitchen and rattle those pots and pans!