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High Plains Outdoors: The Old Bean Pot

Luke Clayton
Luke has been cooking with cast iron for most of his adult life. He first began using the old kettle on the right in the last sixties when his uncle presented it to him for a birthday present.

This past week on one of those cool clear mornings, the urge to do a bit of campfire cooking hit me. I had fashioned a couple of ‘pot hangers’ from a dry cedar limb and another from a deer antler and was anxious to put my old cast iron Dutch kettles to work. My wife saw me rustling around the fire pit in front of my little cabin situated in the trees behind the house and asked what I was up to.

“Going to cook a pot of camp beans and some pork over the campfire” was my reply. She still hasn’t completely fathomed the reason I like to cook over a campfire when we have a new electric stove in the kitchen! I just tell her I like doing things the old way. In truth, using the old cast iron pots that have accompanied me on hunting and fishing trips for much of my life is quite comforting and brings back many fond memories.

I’ve had one of the kettles since my teenage years. It has a recessed lid for holding coals which makes it ideal for baking or frying.  I’ve cooked everything in the old pot from fried fish on the creek bank in east Texas to grouse I shot up in the high country of Colorado. On this most recent cook out, my menu was barbecue pork backbone and a pot of pinto beans, seasoned with wild onions, chili powder, salt, garlic and a bit of brown sugar. 

I began by getting a good ‘cook fire’ going with dry pecan and mesquite wood. For the past few years, I have been cooking with seasoned wood from B&B Charcoal. It comes in a bag and is convenient, especially when I need to start a cooking fire quickly. I usually begin by lighting a few charcoal briquettes and then split the chunks of dry wood into smaller pieces which makes regulating the heat on my cook fire easier. I always keep one or two big chunks of mesquite burning to insure I have plenty of coals.

One of the most overlooked cuts of meat in my opinion is pork back bone. Named appropriately, backbone contains a good bit of bone but it also contains the tastiest meat on a hog, the loin meat. I believe the bone adds a lot of flavor to the meat. Backbone is the cheapest cut of pork, it can often be found for less than a couple dollars per pound.

I began my cookout by adjusting my ‘pot hangers’ made from deer antler and cedar limb to just the right height to keep both pots suspended a few inches over the fire.  I filled the bean pot about three-fourth full of water and added a pound of dry pinto beans and a handful of clean, chopped wild onion with the green tops and a couple of smoked sausages cut into bite size piece. Nothing flavors beans like wild onions and we have a good patch of them on the edge of a wood line where we live.

Once the pot reached a rolling boil, I slid the pot off to the side of the fire, covered it with the lid and let it slowly bubble away for an hour or so. I checked it once during the hour and added a bit more water. I have been told adding salt early in the cooking process will make beans tough so I always wait until they begin to get tender before adding salt. I added a bit of chili powder and a little sugar and let them bubble away for another half hour, until the beans were tender.

I usually smoke pork backbone in my Smokin Tex electric smoker for several hours but I thought I would go completely ‘old school’ on this cooking adventure. I seasoned the backbone with salt, pepper and brown sugar and placed them in my larger Dutch kettle with a little water. My plan was to let them simmer in steam with the lid on for a couple hours and then add barbeque sauce when they were fall off the bone tender. Had I not cooked them in a bit of water and applied the barbeque sauce early in the cooking process, they would surely have dried out and probably scorched.

I might have had a better meal but I honestly can’t remember when. Before we set down to eat, I filled my old enamel coffee pot with a quart of water and brought it to a rolling boil over the fire. The key to good ‘cowboy’ or ‘creek’ coffee is allowing the ground beans to boil four or five minutes. After the coffee boils, pour in a little cold water, the grounds will instantly sink to the bottom of the pot. In order to release the full flavor of coffee, the grounds must be subjected to boiling water. This is way most people love campfire coffee once they try it. Many of the ‘drip’ coffee makers simply do not heat the water enough to bring out the full flavor.

TURKEY SEASON OPENER SHOULD BE GOOD  Spring turkey season opens April 3 in the north zone and prospects are very good with excellent hatches and survival in the past few years. There are lots of 2-year-old gobblers as well as an abundant number of jakes and longbeards.

If you are looking for a good spot hunt, contact my friend Randy Douglas who manages the Dale River Ranch in Palo Pinto County. Randy offers affordable day hunts for turkey and numbers are plentiful this year. For more information visit www.daleriverranch.com or call 214 797 2217.

Outdoors writer, radio host and book author Luke Clayton has been addicted to everything outdoors related since his childhood when he grew up hunting and fishing in rural northeast Texas. Luke pens a weekly newspaper column that appears in over thirty newspapers.