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Digging In

How eating cornbread and beans taught me who I was—and who we are as Texans.

By December 2013Comments

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

My mother was not nostalgic about many things in life, but when it came to cornbread and beans, she was a sentimental fool. She and my father had been teenagers during the Great Depression, and the memory of those hard times was still raw when they married, in 1942. “Many a day, cornbread and beans was all we had to eat,” one of them was likely to say. Neither of them had ever gone to bed hungry, but they came close.

Since Mother firmly believed that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it, she made sure her three well-fed children had an inkling of what the previous generation had endured. At least a couple of times a year, a big pot of pinto beans seasoned with salt pork would appear on the stove, slowly simmering down almost to mush, along with a pan of yellow cornbread, fragrant and steaming. We would gather around our fifties-era Formica dinette table and fill our cereal bowls and plates. I’m afraid that my two younger brothers and I rolled our eyes, although never so that Mother or Daddy could see us. Still, something must have sunk in, because I often find myself calling up remembrances of meals past as a way of understanding, if only a little, where I came from. Food is about many things—nourishment, pleasure, and culture among them—but it’s also about recognizing who you are, and why. 

Some of my most vivid memories start in Cameron, the small Central Texas town where my father grew up. At the family’s modest white frame house on the edge of town, cornbread and beans may have gotten them through difficult times, but Sunday dinner was the ritual that knit them together year in and year out. After church, my grandmother would head to the henhouse with a sharp ax in one hand and a bent coat hanger in the other. In a minute, she would have hooked a nice young frying hen. One whack of the ax on a tree stump and that hen was history, although its headless body continued to run and flop wildly around the yard for what seemed like forever, a sight that could and later did give a sensitive grandchild nightmares for weeks. My grandmother made quick work of plucking and cleaning the bird and cutting it up—and the pieces always included one with the pully bone, or wishbone, an old-fashioned part you seldom see offered by butchers today. Then she would dredge the chicken in a metal pan filled with seasoned flour and fry it up in a big cast-iron skillet.

When everything was ready, the family—my father, his two siblings, their parents, and often an aunt and uncle who lived down the street—would gather around the big oak table in the dining room and survey the bounty: a platter of chicken, of course, plus bowls of black-eyed peas, green beans cooked with a pinch of sugar and at least a ton of bacon grease, buttered new potatoes, a relish tray of sweet pickles, and a basket of rolls kept warm under a napkin. The room grew quiet as Granddad asked the blessing, and then conversation started up again as bowls were passed, serving utensils clinking against the china. The adults drank hot coffee with the meal. The children had milk provided by Molly, the famously ill-tempered family cow. In the summer the windows were thrown open to catch the breeze and, inevitably, the sound of a freight train or two rumbling by; in the winter the house was warmed by a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. 

If my father had been ordered to live the way he grew up and eat the food of his childhood for the rest of his life, he would not have considered it a hardship. Although he eventually left Cameron behind for the relative megalopolis of Austin, he knew who he was, and he was fine with that in every detail. He was a small-town boy and proud of it. The immutability of Sunday dinner and the simplicity of our own family ritual of cornbread and beans only reinforced this. 

Mother was cut from different cloth. She too was from small-town Texas—in fact, from a succession of small towns that concluded with Mercedes, in the Rio Grande Valley. But if my father’s childhood bound him firmly to his past, my mother’s upbringing did not have an easy-to-trace, unifying effect on her. With Mother, things were always more complicated. It’s true that, like my father, she and her two sisters and brother had grown up eating homey Southern and Texas dishes—hamburger steaks, pot roast, baked sweet potatoes, enchiladas, and a wealth of produce from the Valley’s huge farms and citrus orchards. Just as in Cameron, Sunday dinner in Mercedes meant fried chicken, the main difference being that her mother would wring the bird’s neck instead of chopping its head off. 

But cornbread and beans and those other down-home dishes were only part of who she was—and in her mind, not the most important part. She left Mercedes, went to the University of Texas, and married my father, a tall, good-looking student with a wry smile. From the time I can first remember her, when I was about four, she seemed a glamorous creature, her dark hair swept up in a mass of curls, brown suede platform heels on her size five-and-a-half feet. She longed to travel, to be as worldly as the fashionable women she saw in Life magazine. She read incessantly and saved recipes from fancy magazines for dishes like veal à la casino, crème brûlée, vichyssoise, and steam-roasted goose from Julia Child (whose instructions for sewing up the stuffed fowl are worthy of a thoracic surgeon). Every so often she actually made one of these creations in an attempt to elevate the tastes of her exasperatingly conventional family. But our everyday meals consisted of Middle American staples like meat loaf, chicken salad, pastry tarts filled with leftover roast beef and green peppers, and a hamburger-and-tomato concoction she christened Boy Scout Hash. Dessert was apple pie, strawberry shortcake, and spice cake. The rift between the life we led and the more elegant life she wished we led came to a head the Christmas she labored for hours over a spectacular crown roast of pork with crab apples impaled on each rib bone. With looks of dismay, my father and brothers exclaimed, “Where’s the turkey?!” The next year turkey and dressing were back on the menu. But she was only regrouping, not retreating. 

It’s easy to see Mother’s kitchen—and her life—as a battleground where cornbread and beans vied for supremacy with crown pork roast and its ilk. I see that same battle, in fact, reproduced in my own life every year about this time (the conflict is always simmering on a back burner; it just boils up during the holidays). At first I blithely think, “Well, we’ll have turkey and dressing this year because, after all, it is our beloved family custom.” But then I get antsy. I drag six or seven cookbooks off the shelves. I start researching recipes. I convince myself I must try something new and different. 

Partly it’s genetic, the placid paternal genes colliding with the restless maternal ones. But it’s also, I believe, cultural and historical, the result of being immersed in the world of Texas food on a daily basis, being confronted with both tradition—the mythic past of chuck wagons and vaqueros—and brash innovation, a nonstop stream of new restaurants, grills, food trucks, pop-ups, tapas bars, and more. The amount of culinary creativity going on in this state right now boggles the mind. I’ve had the good fortune of observing and commenting on Texans’ dining habits in the pages of this magazine for 39 years (I long ago started telling people I was hired at age ten), and I can confidently say that there has never been a time like the present. Our restaurants and chefs—who these days play with brandade foam and freshwater eel sashimi and goat dumplings—are no longer dismissed as regional or provincial. They are singled out by the likes of Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, and Saveur; they are showered with recognition by the James Beard Foundation; they compete on Top Chef and stroll away with honors. 

But if our state’s present is vital and alive, so is our past. The talent and innovation we see today did not appear out of thin air. They spring from roots that are sunk deep in our soil. Texas lies at a geographic and historical crossroads of unparalleled richness, where beloved foods—from schnitzel to hush puppies to tortillas to kolaches—have long coexisted and influenced one another. And these traditions, it turns out, are not just the inspiration for the modern experimentation in our cuisine. They are also etched indelibly into our taste buds and collective psyche. We are a state where the past holds as much sway as the present. Every year when I report on the ten best new restaurants in Texas, the story is greeted with interest and curiosity; the chefs are proud and mention it when they revise their résumés. But the attention is short-lived. When I am out eating around the state, what is it that people clamor to know? They ask when the magazine is planning its next big story on barbecue, Mexican food, tacos, home cooking, small-town cafes, and chicken-fried steak. We just can’t shake our culinary DNA. 

I understand the sentiment. Sometimes, after a week or two of eating my weight in multi-course meals of kale risotto, roasted duck with tomato sofrito, and chèvre soufflé and reading about yet another orgy of whole-beast cookery—ah, the hazards of a food critic’s job—I feel a sharp hunger for something simple and straightforward. I want nothing more than to stay in on Saturday night and cook. Just the other day, looking for ideas, I pulled one of Mother’s old cookbooks off the shelf. It was the Better Homes & Gardens Cook Book, 1946 edition, and it had been her indispensable recipe resource, with dozens of clippings and index cards tucked between its pages. It sat on the counter next to the toaster for nearly five decades, until one day, after a lifetime of cooking from scratch, she declared she was just too tired to carry on and went over to the dark side: the microwave oven. I was shocked—shocked—but I suppose that, at almost eighty, she was entitled.

Cracking the book open, I suddenly realized what I wanted to make: cornbread and pinto beans. It was a cold, wet night and besides, I had some cornmeal in the pantry. I turned the now fragile pages, trying not to tear them. There was chicken à la king, which I hadn’t thought about in years. There was English trifle, which my mother made again and again, convinced we’d learn to like it if we just gave it another chance. But, search as I might, I couldn’t find the recipes I was looking for. I must have hunted for a good ten minutes, but nothing: not under Breads, not under Vegetables, not under Beans. 

And then it dawned on me. There were no recipes because Mother didn’t need them. Veal à la casino—that she needed a recipe for. Cornbread and beans she knew by heart.

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