Cowboy Beans Little legumes pack a hearty punch...line.

Little legumes pack a hearty punch...line.
Little legumes pack a hearty punch…line.

Beans. The word brings to mind many comments and jokes. Without these legumes-the American West would have been a whole different place.

Pioneers along the trails took beans with them because they lasted forever, only needed water to cook and were filling. The cookie for trail cowboys no doubt liked them for their ease of cooking. Some cowboys even called the cookie “Beans.”

Beans were mainly prepared two ways: baked or cooked in a pot. Regardless of how you cook them today, Kitty Gray’s story about a starving Indian should help you remember why you want to make sure the beans are done before you eat them.

The starving Indian had wandered into Kitty’s parent’s cabin near the Columbia mine in Union County, Oregon, in the late 1800s. “One day he [father] put on a pot of beans to cook, then went away to work,” Kitty recalled. “While he was gone, an old Indian came in and ate the beans. Of course, they had hardly started to cook, but he ate them anyway. A few days later they found him dead in the brush. The uncooked beans he had eaten all swelled up in his stomach and sort of put a stop to his career. I guess he was a surprised Indian all right.”

Even Billy the Kid was affected by beans. William Joshua “Josh” Brent lived in Lincoln, New Mexico, at the same time as the notorious Kid did. His father, also named William, served as undersheriff to Pat Garrett during his capture of the Kid. Josh remembered how, “in the middle of the Lincoln [War],” his mother Carolatta “carried messages for both parties. The message was delivered in a bucket of beans.”

Having a hankering for beans might just get you in trouble. In 1899 two friends wandered around Boise, Idaho. One was a dedicated gambler, while the other was dedicated to his stomach. They passed a shop window displaying a pot of pork and beans. With two dollars on hand that a friend had given them, the hungry man said, “Thank heavens, we can have some of those beans now.” The gambler replied, “We can, eh? Well, wait a while and we’ll see.” The gambler practically raced to the saloon, where he began to bet.

He won some and lost some. His hungry friend kept badgering him about eating, until the gambler lost his temper. By that time, the gambler had about $300 to his name. He grabbed his hungry friend, dragged him down two flights of stairs, across the street and practically threw him into the bean shop. He screamed, “Give this blankety-blanked idiot $300 worth of beans and make him eat every one of them.”

The gambler stood over the bean eater and made him eat beans for an hour without water or anything else. The no-longer-hungry man wanted to stop after his third plate of beans, but the gambler would not allow it. He made him eat, until he could eat no more. The gambler handed his former friend a $50 bill and left.

The cowboy beans recipe shared here is passed down by True West’s Bob Boze Bell: “My grandmother Louise Guess (everyone called her Guessie) made the best cowboy beans I ever had in my life. She was raised in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Man, I can just smell and taste that Kingman, Arizona, kitchen where my grandmother made those fantastic beans so long ago.”

Cowboy Beans

1 bag of pinto beans

1 small piece of salt pork or bacon,
if you must

2 bay leaves

Salt and pepper to taste

Soak the beans overnight. In the morning, pick out any pebbles. Drain, place in a large kettle and cover the beans with water. Cook on high heat for two hours. Turn off the heat and let the beans sit for an hour.

Add two bay leaves and salt pork to the kettle (you may need to add additional water) and bring water to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and season to taste. Simmer for two to four hours or all day.

Serve beans over fresh cornbread with two fresh green onions, and with iced tea.

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Grandma Guessie’s Family Recipe

What do you think?

Sherry Monahan

Sherry Monahan has penned Mrs. Earp: Wives & Lovers of the Earp Brothers; California Vines, Wines & Pioneers; Taste of Tombstone; The Wicked West and Tombstone’s Treasure. She’s appeared on the History Channel in Lost Worlds and other shows.