Cherokee Trail of Tears bean soupColumn Alison Steele Columns Food & Drink 

Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean Soup with Scarlet Kale & Winter Herbs

By Alison Steele

I throw on a sweater and stroll along the garden path for a fresh start to the day. My former convention garden layout of rectangles and rows is transforming. Winter time is prime for garden rearranging, bed resting, thinking, and reconfiguration. Meandering paths of fruit trees and winter greens tucked amongst the purple pincushions are becoming my preferred method of planting now. Culinary herbs stay dry in clay pots for our wet winter and will be transplanted in the spring to spread onto drier ground.  

I relish being in the garden before the town wakes. The birdsong is enough to inspire a banjo tune, sunlight peeks over the ridge setting the cherry leaves ablaze, hummingbirds whizz by from the massive strawberry bush to the tip top of the olive trees, and tiny birds flit around under the bare fruit trees. Crisp fresh air, steam rolling from the brick path, icy kale stalks…even with little sun, a crisp winter garden is such an uplifting experience.

With frost glistening on the scarlet kale, bean vines hanging from drying pegs, and braided onions dangling over the stove, I’ll make a nourishing winter soup that will bring us all to the table. Add a spicy housemade sausage from the local market, the rest of the summer garlic, fresh culinary herbs, good stock and that’s a wrap. With little work, dinner is born. 

I snap and soak just what beans I need for a particular meal to break up what can seem like a tedious chore. When farmer friends stop by for a visit we’ll shell at least a couple handfuls over a cup of hot tea.

Working in my kitchen on a drizzling winter morning is such a gift these days with busy schedules and time flying by exponentially. I put the kettle on, along with some good tunes and set my hands to meaningful work, creating something that will nourish my family and elicit good conversation. Teenagers will still crawl out of their rooms for a hot bowl of soup and a hunk of crusty bread! A good dinner can extend the short winter days into comforting evenings….at home.   

Trail of Tears Beans

Nutritious pole beans were cultivated by the Cherokee people for generations. They were carried by Cherokee tribal members during the Trail of Tears — a forced march by the U.S. government in the 1830s to ethnically cleanse native tribes from their homes and land in the southeast to land west of the Mississippi in order to accommodate white settlers encroaching onto ancestral lands. 60,000 tribal members were forcibly relocated and thousands died of starvation, exposure, and disease during the march. The beans were named Trail of Tears to commemorate the tragic event and were brought to market by seed conservationist Dr. John Wyche. Wyche’s Cherokee family members carried the beans during the march.

Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans and Scarlet Kale

Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean soup with Scarlet Kale & Winter Herbs

1 cup Cherokee Trail of Tears heirloom beans, soaked overnight 
1 large bunch of Scarlet kale, stems removed
2 large butcher-shop sausages, casing removed and torn into quarter sized pieces
I large onion, cut in quarters and sliced thin
2 celery stalks, sliced thin
4 cloves garlic, diced
1 c mushrooms, sliced 
3 t fresh winter herbs, chopped fine (any combination of garlic chives, thyme, rosemary, oregano)
1 t whole grain mustard
1 bay leaf
1 small dried cayenne pepper, slit and left whole
3 tablespoons grass-fed butter
8 cups homemade stock or bone broth

Rinse the hydrated beans and set aside. Chop kale into one-inch wide ribbons. In a large cast-iron Dutch oven, brown the sausage and mushrooms together over high heat, adding kale towards the end. Once kale is wilted, spoon sausage, mushrooms, and greens into a large bowl and set aside. Melt butter and olive oil in the same pot used for the sausage and throw in the onions. Cook about 5 minutes over medium heat, then add garlic, celery, red pepper, bay leaf, and whole grain mustard. If you’ve chosen a spicy sausage, omit the cayenne pepper. Sprinkle with a teaspoon or so of good salt and freshly ground pepper, cover and cook for another 5 minutes. Toss in fresh winter herbs and turn off heat. Cover and cook for a few minutes more, then transfer to a slow cooker along with sausage, mushrooms, herbs, heirloom beans, and good stock. If the power’s out and you have a gas range, put it on the back burner and simmer until beans are soft…about 30 minutes. If not, set the slow cooker to low and be on your merry way. 

Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean soup with Scarlet Kale & Winter Herbs

Returning home to dinner done and fragrant herbs wafting through the home sets the stage for a relaxing evening. Dust with herbs, sea salt and pepper to taste. Serve with a quick roasted Delicata squash, a chunk of fresh bread, and enjoy around the table, together.

A native of Virginia, Alison Steele is descended from members of the Cherokee tribe of the southwestern Blue Ridge. She lives with her family in Boulder Creek where she raises quail, chickens, fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs. Alison plays banjo and sings in Sugar by the Pound.

Photos by Alison Steele


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