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.

The Yankee in the Kitchen

Syracuse, New York is the hometown of Tom Cruise, Grace Jones and Bobcat Goldthwait as well as my partner Jake. His ancestors were involved in Greek shipping, and every now and then after a few glasses of wine he’ll talk about “Uncle Ari and Aunt Jackie”. He also claims they came over on the Concorde, but I know for a fact that his family, while well-off and of Greek descent, settled in New England over a thousand years after my Choctaw ancestors reached Nanih Waiya.

Jake sniffs at my Southern heritage, reminding me that his folks used to contribute to programs for eradicating hookworm and pellagra in Mississippi. He came to Jackson two decades ago and stayed because he likes the weather.  People still ask him where he’s from, and it drives him nuts. I try not to smile.

With a few notable exceptions—chicken and dumplings foremost—Jake loves Southern food, so in a  effort to be charitable, I decided to learn how to make good Yankee baked beans using the sturdy bean pots he brought back from Maine last year.  (No, I didn’t go; he was meeting his mother to visit an aunt, and I felt much better off here with cable.) I used a pound of navy beans, a cup of diced ham with rind instead of salt pork, and since I was out of black strap, a half cup of sorghum molasses had to do.

The soaked beans, pork and syrup went into the pots at noon, covered with water, seasoned with a teaspoon or so black pepper, about a cup of chopped onion powder and a heaping teaspoon of dry mustard. Once in the pot and covered, they went into the oven at around 250, and there they stayed for eight hours.  These beans are damn good; the dry mustard cuts the sweetness of the syrup just enough to let the beans make a statement, and the texture is close to creamy. Jake credited the results to the wonderful pots he bought from New England, so I whacked him with a wooden spoon.