Poor Man's Supper: It's All About the Bean

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Poor Man's Supper: It's All About the Bean

Food is relative, in more ways than one. It’s about how you look at things and how you’re raised. What one person considers an abundant amount of food might cause another person to balk and ask for more.

Growing up poor can cause an aversion to certain foods. I hear friends talk about growing up on beans or rice; one speaks of eating lots of soda crackers and oatmeal to calm hunger pains. To this day, she won’t touch a soda cracker and despises oatmeal. Any of that could fall under the category of a poor man’s supper.

Musicians like Shania Twain recall their poor man’s supper vividly. Twain’s family ate a mixture of dry bread, topped with milk and sugar. Sometimes they ate sandwiches consisting of white bread with nothing on them but mayonnaise or mustard. For Elvis, it was squirrels fried up by his mama and served with greens and cornbread.

I was blessed to have balanced meals on our family table that often consisted of meat and vegetables. My dad had grown up eating things like pinto beans and what he called “S.O.S.,” a.k.a. “Shit on a Shingle.” It consisted of creamed chipped beef on toast. I hated it.

I hated pinto beans, too. My mom often cooked them for my dad; she tried to convince me to eat them, too. Truth is, I never gave poor old pintos a fair chance, and she never forced me to. Thank goodness, or I might today refuse to eat the delight that is the Poor Man’s Supper.

A church fundraiser in the South was the first time I heard the words “Poor Man’s Supper.” But you don’t have to be poor to partake. A Poor Man’s Supper is a Southern tradition that usually includes pinto beans. And you don’t have to be poor, rich, or anywhere in between to enjoy it — just hungry.

The Poor Man’s Supper gained popularity in the South (think Carolinas and Georgia). They’re most often found at local churches and billed as a fundraiser. In most cases, the menu consists of pinto beans, coleslaw, and corn bread. Occasionally, you might find a slice of liver mush thrown in for fun. Toppings of diced onions and/or jalapenos are usually optional additions to flavor the pintos. These suppers are not only a tradition but also a favorite. That said, the turnout to these fundraisers is usually high.

No one around here really knows how it started. If you question seniors in the area, they’ll tell you that the Poor Man’s Supper grew out of necessity during the Great Depression. With little meat available, families relied on beans and grains from their gardens. When asked, most don’t know where, or when, coleslaw was added. Some folks prefer turnip greens to coleslaw, but most fundraisers serve coleslaw for economic reasons. When shredded, one large head of cabbage-turned-slaw can feed quite a few people.
Even though meat is skipped, it’s not missed. On the contrary. Pintos are flavorful and have a hearty texture, similar to meat. When nutritionally compared to meat, pintos can stand up for themselves. A one-half cup serving of cooked pintos has about 100 calories, five grams of fiber, and only a trace of fat. And protein? That serving has close to a whopping seven grams. Take that, meat lovers! Pintos are a healthy alternative to meat and cheap to boot. At just pennies a serving, they can feed lots of hungry folks. That’s why they’re perfect for fundraisers. It’s a healthy and economical meal; what more could you ask for in a fundraiser?

Pintos are healthy and cheap, but they’re also a snap to prepare. Most churches use dried beans; they’re soaked overnight and then cooked on top of the stove for several hours. To make it even more convenient, you can throw them in a slow cooker and cook them all day. If you really want easy, open a can of pintos and heat them. They’re that simple to prepare. Just add a little salt and pepper. If you’re a true Southerner, you might want to throw in a ham hock for flavor; if you don’t want the added fat, just add a tablespoon of vegetable oil while they’re simmering.

If you think pinto beans sound boring, think again. I prefer them spiced up, which notches up their flavor. If you want your taste buds to be taunted a little, then add a can of diced tomatoes with green chilies while they’re cooking (like Ro*Tel).

When ready, spoon them into a bowl and top with diced onion and jalapenos. Boom. No more boring. You can even add some shredded cheese for more flavor. This definitely ain’t my mama’s pintos. Had she prepared them like this, I would have probably eaten them.

Yes, I’ve learned to like pinto beans. I can cook them all kinds of ways. I even help at my church when we have a Poor Man’s Supper fundraiser. It might not be my favorite meal of choice, but I agree it’s healthy and economical. Mom and Dad would be proud.

Main photo by jeffreyw CC BY

Kelli H. Clevenger writes from her North Carolina horse farm that she shares with her husband, crazy puppy and bossy cat. Southern born and bred, she enjoys cooking and eating all things Southern and still eats a traditional meal of black-eyed peas and greens on New Year’s Day. Her passions are writing, animals, fitness and food, not necessarily in that order.