My ex-mother-in-law taught me how to make soup beans.
Evelyn was the Queen-of-feeding-a-large-group-of-hungry-men-on-the-cheap. My father-in-law, Clell, the kindest most uncomplaining man in the entire world, was a farm laborer. In 1970 he made $1.65 an hour, & he worked long hard hours.
Evelyn always had a house full of boys who weren't boys anymore. Guys back from Vietnam. Kids who got kicked out of their own house & needed a meal. Nobody was ever turned away. There was always a pot of something cooking on the stove, bread to scrape the last bite from your bowl, & a pitcher of iced tea to wash it all down.
When I was 19 & stopped eating meat, Evelyn was the only person I knew who didn't act like I'd just joined the Communist Party. She didn't try to sneak lard into my food. She never told me that all my teeth would fall out & I'd get cancer. She just began cooking two versions of everything, one with meat & one without.
Evelyn was married at 13. She didn't have much education, but she was smart. Being smart. she would get bored. She'd take to cooking one thing for a month, then tire of it & move on to something else. One month we'd have something she called "tamale bread" -- a batch with jack cheese for me, hamburger for everyone else. She had sourdough starter in a big ceramic jar so for another month we had sourdough biscuits every day. An uncle came home with a Japanese wife. We had tempura & rice. I learned about frying sweet cabbage, cooking greens, how to fry potatoes & boil potatoes & grate potatoes. How to make a meal from a cup of rice, a can of tomato sauce, an onion & some garlic. Cheap scratch cake. Drop biscuits. Gravy.
But beans were the staple. Pinto beans. Reliable. You could cook up a pot of beans & feed a crowd, & with the leftovers have refried beans for burritos, or add chili powder & hamburger (or fresh veggies in my case) & have a pot of chili or make tamale pie.
When I met Evelyn I was sixteen & had been cooking since the age of ten. My mom worked long hours & hated to cook, so I fixed all the meals for my siblings & mother. Unfortunately for them, I was a terrible cook. Really bad. I didn't know what a produce section was, everything I cooked was from a box or a can. I tried to be creative. Instant mashed potatoes with chunks of Velveeta & shredded canned ham. Spaghetti with cinnamon. Chewy Jell-o. Mushy macaroni. Frankfurters & melted Velveeta chopped up in canned pork & beans. Burned plasticized roast (we were out of aluminum foil so I wrapped the meat in Handi-wrap & stuck it in a 400 degree oven).
Evelyn taught me how to cook. Granted, even with her patiently taking me through the steps, I was no Julia Child. But I did learn to use a cookbook, and I do make a mean pot of beans.
MEAN POT OF BEANS
This is what you do: Get a big pot. A two pound (32 oz.) bag of pinto beans. Rinse the beans then cover them with plenty of water, but not all the way to the top. Put a lid on, bring them to a boil, shut the fire off for an hour. Don't remove the lid until the hour is up.
Now add a big heaping soup spoon (not ladle) of salt, a chopped yellow onion, about four fat cloves of chopped garlic, & replace the lid. Set the beans on to simmer low.
After a couple of hours chop up four or five jalapenos. Put about half a cube of butter in a frying pan & when it melts add about a spoonful of sugar. Keep it on low so it doesn't burn, add the chopped jalapenos & let them soften & brown slightly in the sugary butter. Add this to the pot of beans then let the beans simmer for another hour.
My husband's favorite way to eat soup beans is with fried potatoes (easy) & homemade bread (easy, but more time-consuming). I like mine in a bowl mixed with fried potatoes & grated Monterey Jack cheese.
Evelyn died a couple of years ago. Even after her son & I split up, I still kept in touch with her. She taught me how to make soup beans.
Other stuff Evelyn taught me:
Always keep a stash of money that your husband doesn't know about. It gives you a little leeway when you run up the phone bill or need to slip one of your kids a little help-money.
It's good to have women friends. You can vent about the husband & the kids & the job. You can laugh about whatever pissed you off an hour ago. You can drink tea & talk talk talk & provide alibis for each other.
Men are easy. If you feed & love a man, you can get by with just about anything.
You've got to do something creative or you'll lose your mind. Even if it's just making pipe cleaner octopus decorations to hide the toilet paper.
If you are patient & kind with your learning-challenged daughter-in-law, she will love you, long after she stops loving your son.
(This is Evelyn -- in the brown pants -- with her dog & with her Aunt Charlotte-who-made-really-good-zucchini-bread. At the edge of the table is Evelyn's bean pan. She passed it on to me, & I still make my soup beans in it.)