This a bonus edition of the JOP, therapy for the dog days of summer. Not therapy for you; therapy for me.
The first poor boy doesn’t stand a chance. Every time I tell dramatic stories about how poor my family was when I was a kid, friends tell even sadder stories about their own poverty.
When I told about receiving a dime from the Tooth Fairy, Tony swore that he had to leave fresh eggs by his pillow to get the Tooth Fairy to take his damned tooth away. Ken claims that his parents couldn’t afford to buy him shoes, so they painted his feet black and laced up his toes.
However, in order to tell you this story, I need to continue the theme. When I was a kid, the pancakes at our house were so thin, they only had one side.
The gravy also was so thin that it only had one side. Mom would say, “It looks like rain,” and Dad would gallantly reply, “Yep, but it tastes like gravy.”
I can’t complain about Mom’s cooking. She made do with what she had, and excelled at turning unlikely stuff into tasty meals.
One summer we ate half of a bear. She did the same magic with that bear that she did with a pound of round steak or a can of Spam.
One autumn, Dad shot both an elk and a deer. We hung them up on the screened porch of our house in Flagstaff, so the cold would preserve them. After school, I’d grab a meat saw and butcher knife and help Mom hack off some meat from one carcass or another, so she could make our supper.
Growing up like that, I became a resourceful cook. Mom made sure that by the time I was 10, I knew how to make a pot of pinto beans and a pan of cornbread, so I’d never starve.
Over fifty-plus years, I added to my menu. I learned from wives, in-laws, sheepherders and the little cookbooks that come with Crockpots. Now I can turn out a couple of dozen tasty meals–simple stuff with roots in the South and the West, but good.
I don’t do “Southwest cuisine,” but I make a quiet green chili we call Three Mile Island, and a basic red chili we call Four Mile Island. I was finally able to duplicate Mom’s tamale pie, and it would bring back Davey Crockett from the Alamo.
Miss Ellie does slightly fancier cooking, with artichokes and avocados and stuff, so we complement each other nicely (and grow apace).
I don’t claim to have invented any dishes, although people do ask for the recipe for my Purloined Chicken Peoria. I figure all the dishes were invented long before I got to them.
However, Beanee Weenee pie, which I devised in the summer of 1956, may have been an original. I know that it was a
moment of triumph for me.
I was straw boss for a gypo logging crew over in the Blue River country. We fed a little portable sawmill that turned out mine timbers, railroad ties and lots of sawdust. The crew was made up of college kids, high school dropouts and older Hispanic fellows who probably were not U.S. citizens.
The boss’s wife Lucy was cooking for us, charging us 25 cents a meal per man, and we paid for the groceries. The mess hall was a tent house with a big wood stove in one corner.
One day Lucy went to Silver City to do her laundry, and never came back. Max, the boss, cooked dinner that night, but his fried bologna and lima beans didn’t go over well.
Lucy still wasn’t back the next night, and Max figured she was gone for food. Archie the saw filer made dried beef gravy to be served over biscuits. The gravy was too salty, and the biscuits were the consistency of plumber’s putty.
The crew revolted. A big, loud fellow named Junior was the ringleader. He said, “Max, if we don’t get us some grub that’s fit to eat, we’re quittin’.”
Junior’s sidekick, who went by the nickname Chainsaw, said, “Yeah, Max. No food, we’re walkin’.”
Max took me aside and said, “Jim, you can cook, can’t you?”
“Some,” I said modestly.
“You’re the new cook,” Max said. “You’re not as stout as these other boys, so I want you to stay in camp and keep the books and do the cookin’. And Jim, you have to come up with something real good for supper tonight, or you and I’ll be running this outfit alone.”
That part about not being stout hurt my pride a little. And I knew it would hurt some more, because the guys in a camp mess hall would bitch about the food if Betty Crocker herself showed up to do the cooking.
One problem was that when Miss Lucy split, she took the grocery budget with her, and didn’t leave much in the pantry–salt pork, dried pinto beans and a lot of canned peaches.
Then I found something strange. Miss Lucy had stashed a whole case of Van Camp’s Beanee Weenees. If you have not experienced them, they’re little chunks of weiner mixed in with the old familiar Van Camp’s pork and beans. I like to eat them cold, out of the can. I’ll bet Lucy was saving them for herself.
I placed pie crust in the bottoms of some large pie pans, dumped in the Beanee Weenees and made a lattice top crust for each pie. The pies came out of the oven a beautiful golden brown.
There were other things on the table to eat–canned peaches, bread and butter, frijoles and chili. But the eyes of the crew were riveted on those beautiful pies with the lattice tops.
Conversation in a logging camp mess hall is pretty salty–profanity, character assassination, talk of bodily functions. But it was quiet that evening as the fellows contemplated those Beanee Weenee pies, and whether their pride was going to force them to quit.
Junior was so big that he had to sit alone on a stump at the head of the table so he wouldn’t injure anyone with his elbows. The other guys watched to see what he would do.
He grabbed a Beanee Weenee pie, scooped half of it out onto his plate, and dug in with his spoon. Pretty soon he came up for air, glanced over at Max, and said, “Why, that’s plumb good.”
Soon everyone else agreed that I had come up with something really different–and good.
Chainsaw asked what it was. I started to invent some kind of name, but Chainsaw interrupted me: “It looks like Beanee Weenee pie!”
“Yep,” I said. “Did you ever eat Beanee Weenee pie before?”
“No,” Chainsaw said, “but I always wanted to.”
Well, that ended the revolt. The crew set to work with a new vigor. Some of the guys who lived not far away went home on weekends, and I guess they complained about the cooking they found at home. They came back telling me their wives and mothers wanted my recipe for Beanee Weenee pie.
I had met a girl from Clifton, and she invited me to a church potluck. I took along a Beanee Weenee pie, but I wouldn’t tell her what was in it. We set it on the table amongst the entrees and waited to see what people would do.
That pie pan was empty before half the people there had gone through the line. Next week, there was a story in the Greenlee County World Herald about the mystery cook who had brought Beanee Weenee pie to the potluck, and how it had been very popular.
That fall, my Beanee Weenee pie won a blue ribbon at the Apache County fair in St. Johns. Somebody said my recipe was in Sunset magazine, suggested as a trendy dish for a poolside supper in La Jolla.
A fellow named Ben Paxil was running for the State Senate from Apache County, and he published a cookbook as a campaign tool, so people would remember his name. Years later, Ben swore that it was my Beanee Weenee pie recipe that got him elected to the Senate.
I haven’t made that pie in more than half a century, but it still serves a useful purpose.
When Miss Ellie and I are invited to a potluck, and we’re trying to decide what to take, I volunteer to make a Beanee Weenee pie. Right away, she offers to make her wonderful meat loaf, or one of her special salads.