Yankee Beans

Syracuse, New York is hometown to Tom Cruise, Grace Jones, and Jake, who says his ancestors were Greek fishermen. Every now and then he’ll offhandedly mention “Uncle Ari and Aunt Jackie.”

Jake sniffs at my Southern heritage, informing me that his parents contributed to programs for eradicating hookworm, pellagra, and illiteracy in Mississippi. He came to Jackson over two decades ago as the result of a convoluted series of circumstances I’ve long since quit trying to unravel. He stayed because he likes the weather; his recollections of lake-effect snow are unbelievably horrific. Even after twenty-plus years here, people still ask him where he’s from. It drives him nuts.

Generous soul that I am, in an effort to reciprocate his family’s (likely fictitious) charity, I had to learn how to make good Yankee baked beans using the sturdy pots he brought back from Maine last year, which of course had been made by exceedingly sweet people in a religious community near Bangor.  (No, I didn’t go; he was meeting his mother to visit an aunt, and I was better off here with weed and cable.)

I breathed deeply and put my gloves on. Then I took a pound of dried navy beans, a cup of diced ham with rind, and a half cup of sorghum molasses and threw it all into the (unquestionably gorgeous) 2 quart pot with a cup of chopped onions and a bay leaf. I covered them with water, seasoned with a teaspoon of black pepper and a heaping tablespoon of dry mustard. I water to the rim , covered the pot, and put it into a 250 oven for four hours.

The beans were damn good, almost buttery; the mustard cut the molasses just enough to let the beans make a statement.  Of course Jake credited the results to the pots, so I whacked him with a wooden spoon. Twice.

Charley Pride’s Baked Beans

My father Jess Jr. was one of the first politicians in north Mississippi who took an active and positive role in civil rights. As district attorney he refused County to sign a subpoena issued by a local grand jury for “disturbing the civil peace”  on the federal officers who guarded James Meredith  at Ole Miss October 1962. He took everyone, irregardless of race or religion, into his care, and that memory still echoes among many across Mississippi.

He also loved country music. He was raised on the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Roy Acuff; by the time I was ten, I knew damn near every one of Hank William’s songs by heart, and plenty of Loretta and Ernest as well. He also came to like a young singer named “Country Charley Pride” after hearing Pride’s first release in January 1966, “The Snakes Crawl at Night”.

Country music in the mid-1960s was–and largely still is–very much a white venue, so when my mother bought him an 8-track tape of Charley’s songs for him to listen to while he roared around in his new Mustang, she replaced the cover with one she made herself, something he wouldn’t look to hard at, a picture of a cowboy hat or something. Then there came a day when they were driving somewhere or the other, and Daddy was singing along with Charley, and Momma  turned to him after the song was over and said, “Jess, did you know he’s black?” He snorted and said, “Oh, Barbara, don’t be silly. He’s a country boy from over in Quitman County.” Then she showed him the original label on the tape. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. Soon after that, Charley made headline by being the first black entertainer on the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey in 1941, and of course, Jess Jr. told everybody he had been listening to him for years.

Here’s Charley’s’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Baked Beans, which he probably got from a roadie. I found this recipe in Mississippi’s VIP Recipes. This cookbook was published by Phillips Printing in the Jackson area to support a local school; there’s no date and no mention of the school’s name, but the other 42 contributors include John Grisham, Faith Hill, Archie Manning, Walter Peyton, Jimmy Buffet and Mary Ann Mobley. It’s nice to know our people help one another out even when they’re not at home.

Charlie Pride’s Sweet and Sour Baked Beans

8 bacon slices, pan fried until crisp, drained and crumbled
4 large onions, peeled and cut in rings
½ to one cup brown sugar (more if you like beans on the sweet side)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1 teaspoons salt
½ cup cider vinegar
1 one pound can green lima beans, drained
1 one pound can dark red kidney beans, drained
1 one pound can New England-style baked beans, undrained

Place onions in skillet. Add sugar, mustard, garlic powder and vinegar. Cook 20 minutes, uncovered. Add onion mixture to beans. Add crumbled bacon. Pour into 3-quart casserole. Bake in moderate over at 350 for one hour. Makes 12 servings.