On The Range is a weekly exploration of the history and lore of Texas menu items.
"When you have four hundred pounds of beans in the house, you need have no fear of starvation. Other things, delicacies such as sugar, tomatoes, peppers, coffee, fish or meat, may come sometimes miraculously, through the intercession of the Virgin, sometimes through industry or cleverness; but your beans are there, and you are safe. Beans are a roof over your stomach. Beans are a warm cloak against economic cold." --from Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck.
Simply put, beans are the food of the poor in Hispanic countries, and have been so for thousands of years.
Diana Kennedy, the high priestess of Mexican cuisine, notes in her book The Cuisines of Mexico, that if you travel throughout the country, you will notice canvas awnings set up on market days in every small town and village, where vendors and small-time growers hawk an astonishing array of legumes. "The black veracruzanos, the purple mottled flor de mayo, the deep yellow canarios, the brownish bayos or sabinos, the white aluvias, and big green and white habas...overflowing the big woven baskets, or poured into piles like slag heaps in the marketplace."
For our purposes, we will confine ourselves to the two varieties most associated with Mexican food in the States, the black turtle bean (frijol negro in Spanish), and the pinto bean (frijol pinto, literally "painted bean" for its mottled skin. Think the pinto horse, not the vehicle which blew up on impact, and you've got the right idea.)
Rick Bayless, in a discussion that is remarkable in its absence of his usual food-porn flourishes, believes that black beans, the pride of Southern Mexico, are earthier and more flavorful than the pinto, which is preferred in the North. In either case, he recommends preparing beans with pork lard for the most satisfying flavor. "If you want to use vegetable oil, increase the onions and garlic a little (and brown them well) to compensate for the loss of the roasty flavor of good pork lard."
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SHOW ME HOW
Matt Martinez, in his cookbook Mex Tex, proves that he was never one for shortcuts by providing a recipe for Matt's Hog Lard, which you can make from salt pork, pork trimmings, and bacon. You can then use this lard for preparing your own frijoles refritos, a misleading term that Kennedy and Bayless both believe should be translated as "well-fried beans" rather than "twice-fried beans." He also used salt pork in his Charro Beans recipe, the name Charro referring to Mexican cowboys (vaquero is another term for Hispanic wranglers), so the name got attached to the type of meat-flavored bean dish they preferred along the trail.
Needless to say, adding beer to any charro bean recipe makes the beans borracho, or drunk, as will adding beer to the chef or diners, in sufficient quantities.
Of course, here in Texas, beans are most frequently paired with rice. At Café Gecko, a restaurant and bar specializing in "foods from sunny latitudes", rice and beans are combined with jalapenos and spices in the soul-warming dish Borracho Beans With Rice.
Intercession from the Virgin is not required here.