Poor Man's Supper: It's All About the Bean

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Poor Man's Supper: It's All About the Bean

Food is relative, in more ways than one. It’s about how you look at things and how you’re raised. What one person considers an abundant amount of food might cause another person to balk and ask for more.

Growing up poor can cause an aversion to certain foods. I hear friends talk about growing up on beans or rice; one speaks of eating lots of soda crackers and oatmeal to calm hunger pains. To this day, she won’t touch a soda cracker and despises oatmeal. Any of that could fall under the category of a poor man’s supper.

Musicians like Shania Twain recall their poor man’s supper vividly. Twain’s family ate a mixture of dry bread, topped with milk and sugar. Sometimes they ate sandwiches consisting of white bread with nothing on them but mayonnaise or mustard. For Elvis, it was squirrels fried up by his mama and served with greens and cornbread.

I was blessed to have balanced meals on our family table that often consisted of meat and vegetables. My dad had grown up eating things like pinto beans and what he called “S.O.S.,” a.k.a. “Shit on a Shingle.” It consisted of creamed chipped beef on toast. I hated it.

I hated pinto beans, too. My mom often cooked them for my dad; she tried to convince me to eat them, too. Truth is, I never gave poor old pintos a fair chance, and she never forced me to. Thank goodness, or I might today refuse to eat the delight that is the Poor Man’s Supper.

A church fundraiser in the South was the first time I heard the words “Poor Man’s Supper.” But you don’t have to be poor to partake. A Poor Man’s Supper is a Southern tradition that usually includes pinto beans. And you don’t have to be poor, rich, or anywhere in between to enjoy it — just hungry.

The Poor Man’s Supper gained popularity in the South (think Carolinas and Georgia). They’re most often found at local churches and billed as a fundraiser. In most cases, the menu consists of pinto beans, coleslaw, and corn bread. Occasionally, you might find a slice of liver mush thrown in for fun. Toppings of diced onions and/or jalapenos are usually optional additions to flavor the pintos. These suppers are not only a tradition but also a favorite. That said, the turnout to these fundraisers is usually high.

No one around here really knows how it started. If you question seniors in the area, they’ll tell you that the Poor Man’s Supper grew out of necessity during the Great Depression. With little meat available, families relied on beans and grains from their gardens. When asked, most don’t know where, or when, coleslaw was added. Some folks prefer turnip greens to coleslaw, but most fundraisers serve coleslaw for economic reasons. When shredded, one large head of cabbage-turned-slaw can feed quite a few people.

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