Some foods or recipes have hints of luck about them. There are many different varieties of luck, of course.
Beans and Taters is a dish steeped in luck.
Though it’s known all over the South, you won’t find a recipe for it in most of the usual cookbooks where “native Southern recipes” abide. And though the phrase “beans and taters” is one immediately recognizable and known to most Southerners (particularly those with rural roots) you won’t find it listed in slang dictionaries or in regular dictionaries or in the larger (Oxford on food, Cambridge on food, Southern Culture) encyclopedia sets. There is a newly released (this year) Encyclopedia of Southern Culture which has an entire volume on food and food culture. I’m hoping to see if it is listed there!
You hear about beans and taters through luck if you’ve not grown up knowing it. My luck happened when a neighbor in an area of the rural South telephoned one day asking for a ride into town. Her car (pronounce that as that ve-hi-cle please, and with no self-consciousness either) had broken down. Luck had run out for her, in that moment.
During the ride into town, her young son was talking about food. He wanted some special thing for supper, that night. His Mom’s response . . . “Way things are going we just might be eating beans and taters for some time!”
But “beans and taters” was said with a musical lilt when she said it. And there was no sadness in her voice. Apparently beans and taters (yes, very musical the phrase is) is a dish born of bad luck but one that has good luck inside it. It is filled with pleasure, gladness, and gratitude. It is loved.
Luck also touches beans and taters in their very inception – the lithe green beans or sturdy other sorts of beans are ready to pluck from their vines in the garden at the same time those tiny new potatoes are ready to start digging up. Just look at any farmer’s market right now if you don’t have a garden, and see them sitting there on the same table – the two are silent partners.
Luck being what it is, beans and taters is not just one unchangable recipe. There are many recipes, and they rise from an oral tradition. Two of these recipes stand out as the most common examples: A green bean and bacon stew topped with little shiny new potatoes steamed on top . . . and a pinto and saltback or bacon stew sided by fried potatoes. These make the meal – there’s not any need for too much else but cornbread - unless of course there is more bounty to have . . . if the luck is running strong the beans and taters can move quietly from the center of the table to settle in as a side dish to serve with one of those huge picnic spreads of fried chicken, chow chow, sliced tomatoes, the endless variety of things from the fields and garden that crow and holler from the rural end-of-summer table.
But they say one chooses their own luck, and I still feel lucky to have heard the words “beans and taters”, and to have tasted them made by my own hands after the fact, in my own home kitchen.
The only print resource I’ve found with a recipe for beans and taters is in a book by Loretta Lynn titled “You’re Cookin’ It Country”. Her recipe is made with pork jowl, sugar, salt and pepper, fresh green beans and new potatoes – and when she writes of beans and taters the luck emerges again in the form of grace. The hunger of poverty, the pride of finding something to hold on to when nothing seemed to be there, and the joy of taste and comfort those lucky beans and taters hold within them are the heart of her tale.
I’m thinking of that saying: “If it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all”. This guy’s got it wrong. He’s just got to find himself some beans and taters.