I was fourteen when I decided to become a vegetarian. Much to my parents’ dismay, this meant that they would have to cook different meals for me. After months of meat substitute products and “come on, chicken broth isn’t really chicken,” my dad started the tradition of Gilmer beans. I still remember the aroma of sautéing onions on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and the sound of sizzling oil that let me know my dad would be spending the entire day making food for the week.
As a kid, I didn’t always appreciate my dad’s efforts to make sure that we all had good food to eat. I would walk into the kitchen, worried about my friends, love life, or academic future. When I voiced my worries, my dad’s response was always something along the lines of, “Does this need more salt?” This is not to say that he didn’t care about the woes of high school drama, but on these Sundays, he was completely engrossed in making this dish, and making it perfect. He had an intuitive sense of measurement, and I admired the way he would throw handfuls of spices into the pot, never questioning his decisions. When my friends came over, wafts of cumin and garlic ushered them through the door, inviting them to sit down and stay a while. Even on Saturdays when I abandoned the kitchen, absconding with the scent of legumes on my jacket, my friend Abi would sniff the air around us and ask, “What smells so good?”
Before coming to college, I yearned for independence. The semester I arrived, I embarked on a journey of so-called rebellion and self-discovery veiled by general silliness. I ran to the hairstylist and shaved the side of my head, DIY-dyed the tips of my hair blue, and started planning tattoos. I didn’t have the opportunity to cook much my first two years in college, so I stuck to what passes as food in the dining halls, always either flavorless or laden with absurd amounts of salt. However, I waited for the day when I would have my own (albeit tiny) kitchen.
When I moved into a dormitory with a kitchen during my junior year, I began to stray from the simple comfort food that my dad had cooked growing up. While this food formed the backbone of my cooking interest and experience, I created my own evolving style of cooking alongside my developing personality as quiet college rebel. I met people who weren’t afraid to get creative in the kitchen. I learned to get out of my comfort zone. I’ve gone through passionate phases of curry creation, ragout renegades, and, most recently, taco tours. While these experiments in the dinner lab have not all been successful (chipotle chocolate black bean soup, homebrewed jalapeno saison, pear and salsa pizza), many of them have been grand adventures.
These days, I sometimes like to return to the simpler meals of the past. I often make Gilmer beans when I miss my home in Texas, or simply when I want a comforting, humble meal. Although my recipe sticks closely to my dad’s, I have amended it to fit my tastes. When I recreate this recipe, I lace the mixture with a fiery coating of chipotle chili pepper and err more on the side of “extra beer” than of caution. As I have introduced many of my Alabamian peers to Gilmer beans, I have realized how much I enjoy the collaborative process of cooking with others. While I used to relish any chance to cook on my own in my parents’ home, I now value the camaraderie that comes with shaking an arbitrary amount of any spice into a bubbling pot of full-bodied broth. Whether I am finishing work, sitting comfortably under a blanket at the end of a long day, or camping somewhere in the southeast, I always appreciate a warm pot of flavorful pinto beans, especially consumed among good friends. The day after cooking, the beans are even better, as they become infused with the savory flavors of the spices and hearty body of the beer.
The last time I ate Gilmer beans, I was sitting in the darkness of the Conecuh National Forest with one of my best friends. We had completed a lengthy (and drizzly) trek to swampy southern Alabama to explore a realm shared by cattails and gopher frogs. The warm, homemade treat of these beans, combined with the bright constellations we spent the evening identifying comforted me in the midst of freezing temperatures and threats of deer hunters mistaking us for prey during the next day’s hike. I cocooned into my soft sleeping bag and dozed off with a full stomach and a sense of satisfaction in keeping my childhood memories alive. It won’t be long before I’m tempted to make Gilmer beans again.
1 lb dried pinto beans
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 tbs olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch cilantro, stems removed
3 12 oz. bottles of beer (any pilsner or lager is fine)
Water, as needed
1 tbs cumin
1 tbs chipotle pepper
Salt (to taste)
Pepper (to taste)
3 whole bay leaves
Directions: Heat olive oil on medium heat in a Dutch oven. When hot, add onions and garlic and begin to sauté. After a few minutes, add the cumin, chipotle pepper, paprika, salt, pepper, and bay leaves. Allow to sauté until the onions are fragrant and translucent. Add beer and cilantro. Sort beans on a clean, flat surface and add to pot. Allow to cook on medium heat on the stove while you preheat the oven to 250 degrees. When oven is hot, transfer pot and allow beans to cook over the course of the afternoon, stirring every hour and adding more beer or water as needed.
–By Lauren Gilmer