black bean soup
Black Bean Soup uses dried beans soaked overnight, then cooked for two hours with three onions, three cloves of garlic, four slices of bacon,
half of a green bell pepper and a handful of other ingredients.

Authenticity, simplicity at Cross Creek

We stopped at Cross Creek on the way back from Orlando, looking for authenticity after the fantasyland of manufactured fun.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' place didn't show up on the Florida highway map, but we found it just the same, an old Cracker cottage in an orange grove that looked much as it did in the 1930s.

In the kitchen, a red-and-white checked cloth skirted the sink, screening the pipes. A wood-burning stove, icebox and plain wooden table with red legs filled out the sparse room. Rawlings, who shared stories and recipes from her central Florida neighbors in "Cross Creek Cookery," once told an interviewer that she got as much satisfaction from preparing dinner for a few friends as she did from writing the perfect paragraph.

Given the century-old kitchen equipment, you might wonder at the sentiment. If you're a writer, you'll appreciate the skills needed for both.

Rawlings won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Yearling," a staple of young-adult reading lists. She won the hearts of food lovers with "Cross Creek Cookery."

"I cannot conceive of cooking for friends or family, under reasonable conditions, as being a chore," she wrote. "Food eaten in unpleasant circumstances is unblessed to our bodies' good – and so is a drug-store sandwich – or a raw duck."

She provided favorite recipes, all served in her home, and often prepared with cream from her Jersey, Dora; vegetables from the garden; and fish and game from nearby. There are soup recipes from Greek sponge divers in Tarpon Springs, Florida peanut-fed ham baked with sherry, along with creamed pokeweed on toast and Southern favorites including ambrosia, collards, cow-peas, fried tomatoes and hushpuppies.

A few weeks after our trip to Cross Creek, I checked out Southern food writer John Egerton's "Side Orders" from the library and found a recipe for black bean soup attributed to Mrs. Chancey, the wife of the mayor of Tampa. It came from Rawlings' book, losing a half-teaspoon of baking soda and a cup of olive oil in the nearly half-century between the two Southern cookery collections.

Egerton writes that the black beans must have seemed exotic in parts of the South at that time, when white beans were a staple. I wondered about the quantity of olive oil, surely a scarce item in central Florida grocery stores in the 1940s. Everything else is a pantry staple, including the trio of bacon, onion and green bell pepper that underlies so much of the Low Country cooking around Savannah, where I grew up.

Egerton's version of the soup calls for sautéing the vegetables and bacon in an unspecified amount of olive oil, then adding to the simmering beans after the first hour.

I prepared the soup nearly as Rawlings called for, using dried beans soaked overnight, then cooked for two hours with three onions, three cloves of garlic, four slices of bacon, half of a green bell pepper and a handful of other ingredients – including just a tablespoon of olive oil, too little as it turned out.

The onions looked to be double the size that Rawlings might have dug from her garden, so I stopped at 2 1/2. Even so, the diced onion outnumbered the beans. I passed on the suggestion to serve more onion – raw – to sprinkle over the soup, instead offering just white rice.

More oil would have added a heartier texture to the soup, as would blending some of the soup before stirring it back into the remainder. No matter. Like Cross Creek itself, the soup relies on simplicity for its charm.

Where’s the recipe?

If you’re looking online for either black bean soup recipe, try Google Books.

Baking soda and beans

Adding a little baking soda to dried beans as they simmer speeds up the cooking time. But this shortcut can backfire, Harold McGee writes in "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen." McGee says baking soda can reduce cooking time by up to 75 percent, but that its alkalinity can give beans a slippery feel and soapy taste.


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