When our town’s only grocery store was closed for a year due to corporate mishaps, people bought their pinto beans in 5- or 10- or 25-pound bags from the hardware store or the barbershop. When the barbershop burned down in the big Christmas fire of 2015, everyone bought their beans at the hardware store.
When the new grocery store opened after a year and a half of fundraising and hard work, the new owner, wanting to stock the store with locally sourced food items, bought her pinto beans from young farmers in a neighboring county. People were suspicious. “We don’t know these beans,” they told the grocer, and she soon found a source for the beans they did know. “These beans,” she now tells me, “are walking out the door.”
People in our town may not know the word terroir—a term normally used for artisanal crops like grapes, coffee, chocolate, chile, agave, and cannabis—but they know that beans grown on this soil, in this climate, are different from beans grown 50 miles north. They have a character, flavor and texture all their own. They are creamy when cooked. The skins become soft. The meat of the bean readily absorbs the flavors of garlic, cumin, and oregano. They pair well with chile, green or red.
A few years ago, my friends, Biddie and Gorden McMath, decided it was time to show me a deeper look at the county. Now in their 80s, they were the children of homesteaders who arrived in the early 1900s. They were also local historians and had written the stories of their families and of their long married life together. Gorden drove and as we rambled down unpaved county roads, as they told me some of their stories, while pointing out piles of rocks that marked the remains of houses and outbuildings that had belonged to their families. We passed by their one-room schoolhouses that had also served as a place for Saturday night dances and Sunday worship. We drove through open range where the cattle are not fenced from the road. We passed the mesa where Gorden, as a young boy, had seen his first airplane.
Throughout his boyhood, he helped his family with planting, cultivating, and harvesting beans that were then sacked and shipped all over the country. “At the height, there were five large and two or three smaller bean cleaners and elevators here in town. We were the largest bean processing center in the United States,” Gorden remembered in his book, Gorden’s Musings, “The farmers were producing 750 train carloads of beans in a season!
“By 1941, Mountainair was declared the Pinto Bean Capital of the World and that was the last good bean crop made in the area. An incident that happened to me during World War II brought this fact to me with a very potent impact. I was in the Army Air Force, hauling freight over the Himalayan Mountains from India to China by air. On a trip to Kuming, China, I noticed a stack of 100-pound sacks of beans near the loading docks, and they were labeled ‘CRC (choice re-cleaned) Pinto Beans, Mountainair Trading Company, New Mexico.’”
Then everything changed. Farmers had made it through the drought of the 1930s, but not through the drought of the late 1940s. Gorden pointed out fields where the topsoil had blown away right down to the caliche, the outlines of the old bean fields, and terraces that had been put in place by the WPA and CCC for erosion control. After the drought, the fields lay fallow and then most were planted in grass.
My friend Bayita was the one who taught me to make beans the New Mexico way. It was simple. You put dry beans, red chile pods, garlic, cumin, maybe some oregano, salt, and a bit of bacon fat in a pressure cooker and cook for 30 or 40 minutes, depending on the age and well-being of the pressure cooker’s seal ring.
Beans were the staple of many a meal our families ate together, served with green chile in the summer and red chile in the winter, with or without cheese. They were mashed and rolled into a tortilla with fried potatoes and scrambled eggs for breakfast burritos. They were mashed and fried with more spices, garnished with chopped lettuce and tomato, and served on a crisp corn tortilla for tostadas. They were versatile. They were nutritious. They were economical for our young, growing families.
Beans are common; they are simple, and when you are away from home, they are the thing you miss, because they taste like home.
As fate would have it, there was a time when Bayita and I were both away from New Mexico. Her husband had joined the State Department, and they spent 10 years living overseas before settling in Istanbul, Turkey for a few years to live near one of their sons. Meanwhile, my husband and I had decided to teach abroad for the remaining years of our teaching careers. We had worked in Italy and Egypt, and now we, too, were living in Istanbul.
It was natural to plan a Christmas Eve dinner together. When we arrived at their apartment overlooking the Bosporus Strait, we were greeted with the smell of chile. Somehow, Bayita had found all the ingredients needed for an enchilada dinner. Cheese and eggs were easy to find. Corn tortillas and red chile were a bit harder, but she had managed to find reasonable substitutes. The miracle, though, was that she had been able to find bacon, a most difficult-to-find ingredient in a Muslim country, for the pinto beans that she had carried from New Mexico all the way to Turkey, so that we could all exclaim, “Ah! We know these beans.”