By John Blankenship
West Virginians of every social class enjoy a bowl of beans and cornbread from time to time, as the humble, high-fiber, high-protein dish moves up the food chain.
The beans are pinto beans, called brown beans in some parts of the state.
The bread is made the way cornbread is made throughout the Upper South, baked in a cast-iron skillet with little or no sugar. The beans and bread are served hot from the kitchen, often with chopped or sliced onions on the side.
This simple meal requires hours of preparation. The dried beans are typically soaked overnight, then seasoned with salt and fatback pork and cooked through much of the next day.
According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia, pinto beans are not commonly grown in West Virginia and were not among our pioneer foods, but became available with the spread of stores as a cheap bulk or bagged commodity.
Many mountaineers recall among their earliest memories the sight of a mother or grandmother picking over a pan of uncooked beans to remove the pebbles found in dried beans from the store. The beans were then rinsed in preparation for soaking.
Like biscuits and gravy, beans and cornbread are a folk food that has made the transition from family table to restaurant. Beans and cornbread, often very good, may now be found in restaurants across the state and beyond.
The mountains, meanwhile, have a way of keeping alive large patterns of old ways by simply isolating people. It’s too bad that most educators fail to see the value of a folklore curriculum in the state’s educational system.
What is more, many state residents seem to prefer a more polished picture of the Mountain State’s rich legacy of folklore and culture than their true origin. A kind of homogenized view of the state’s history is preferable to one that simply rhapsodizes about the ragged people who settled the state.
What is happening today is that children are not having their regional culture presented to them in a positive way, so they would rather forget it. The competing mass popular culture is taking its toll. In an era of cyberspace and MTV, of Interstates and Amtrak, of cell phones and laptops, Twitter and Facebook, we are losing part of our psychic connection to our ancestors.
We are losing the antique speech of the mountain people, commonly called “the old tongue,” that derives from the “Old Scotch” dialects of Northern England and low-land Scotland and is found in many folk songs of West Virginia.
In other words, our children are in danger of becoming culturally uninformed — not knowing why they speak, think and see things the way they do.
I’m not offended when people refer to West Virginians as hillbillies. So-called “hicks” exist in every state of the union. The original hillbilly was a fiercely independent person who could live without any help from the local or federal government. As West Virginians, some of us have gotten away from our ancestors’ pride and work ethic.
Too many in our state list their employment status as being “on checks” as if it wore a legitimate skilled or learned occupation. Some out-of-state folk lampoon those mountaineers who are on “disability,” especially those who have turned into full-time hunters and fishermen.
I think we need to have a better understanding of our regional folkways so that we can relate to America’s larger conventions. If we can understand our own cultural values, we can better understand the cultural values of others.
Maybe we can become better citizens, more tolerant, more understanding and less judgmental. If this process is realized, we might become better critical thinkers, better creative thinkers.
The people of West Virginia have contributed much to our nation. Many of my former students have become educators, professors, researchers, physicians, attorneys, engineers, pharmacists, journalists, soldiers, miners and successful business people.
I am proud of where I live. Nobody is going to make me ashamed or insecure about my heritage.
Some college bands from neighboring states might poke fun at or lampoon our culture in the Mountain State, audiences might even guffaw at the Beverly Hillbillies — it only makes me that much more proud of the gentlest souls that God ever created.
I am only sorry that more people around the country could not have been born and raised among these beautiful hills …
I’ve traveled across this nation, but nothing can compare to a good bowl of brown beans, a big chunk of cornbread smothered in butter, a piece of onion and an ice-cold glass of buttermilk.
Top o’ the morning!
— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald.