On this West Virginia Morning, Kari Gunter-Seymour is Ohio’s third poet laureate. Inside Appalachia Producer Bill Lynch spoke with Gunter-Seymour about poetry, getting published and the Appalachian part of Ohio.
A bowl of brothy pinto beans is a comfort food for lots of folks in Appalachia. In the former coal town of Wellston, Ohio, one man is serving up soup beans that remind him of his childhood home.
Juan Ríos grew up in Mexico City where frijoles charros are ubiquitous. Frijoles charros — or charro beans — is a dish that originated in the ranching communities of rural northern Mexico. Growing up, it’s a dish that Ríos ate regularly. Yet when he opened a Mexican restaurant in Wellston over a decade ago, Ríos didn’t include frijoles charros on the menu. But recently, he’s started offering it.
WELLSTON, OHIO — As I walked off the quiet streets of downtown Wellston, Ohio and into Viva Jalisco, all my senses lit up. Lively mariachi music played throughout the dining room. The walls and booths were decorated with brightly colored depictions of agave farms and Frida Kahlo paintings. The scent of garlic and onions and chillies wafted through the air.
I was greeted by Juan Ríos, the owner of Viva Jalisco. Ríos took me back into the kitchen where a pot of frijoles charros was simmering on the stove.
“This is for frijoles charros,” Ríos said, showing me the pinto beans. “Right now, we cook for probably another 20 minutes.”
Ríos moved to the United States when he was 20. Since then, he has primarily worked in restaurants. He started out bussing tables and washing dishes. Then he learned to cook, and eventually he opened his own restaurant. Ríos’s mom gets a kick out of the fact that he has learned to cook because it wasn’t something he did while living in Mexico. He said when he was growing up, his mom and sister cooked.
“And we come here, you see, we’re cooking now here,” Ríos said. My mom laughs at me because, ‘You see, you’re in the United States and you’re cooking now yourself.’”
When he was learning to cook, Ríos sometimes called his mom to ask for advice. “Sometimes I say, ‘Mom, can you tell me how to make this?’ If she knows how to make it, they tell me how to make it,” Ríos said.
One dish that Ríos remembers his mom making back in Mexico City is frijoles charros or charro beans, the same dish he was making that day in Wellston. “Charros” in Spanish means “cowboy.” So the name “frijoles charros” harkens back to the stew’s history as an important food tradition in rural ranching communities of northern Mexico. In order to sustain the workers during long days of herding cattle, the stew was packed with protein. Along with beans, frijoles charros is heavy on the meat.
In his version, Ríos cuts up three different kinds of meat to add to the beans. “Bacon, hotdogs — we call salchichas — and ham,” Ríos said.
Ríos explained that growing up, frijoles charros was something the women in his family made for special occasions or large gatherings. Like weddings, holidays, and quinciñeras. He said the soup beans were served at the beginning of the meal.
“Before you got your meal, you got your frijoles charros,” Ríos said. “And you can get your chips, your tortilla. Just pour hot sauce — you pour onto your frijoles charros, and start eating before your meal comes.”
In addition to being a staple at family gatherings, frijoles charros is a common side dish in restaurants throughout Northern Mexico and along the US-Mexico border. But historically, it’s not something that is often seen on menus at Mexican restaurants in southern Ohio.
Elena Foulis grew up in Northern Mexico and moved to Ohio at the age of 17. Foulis lived in Ohio for about 30 years, where she went on to teach at The Ohio State University. These days, she’s at Texas A&M, but is also working on a digital oral history project about Latines in Ohio, which is being archived at the Center for Folklore Studies at Ohio State. Foulis thinks one reason that charro beans aren’t as visible in southern Ohio might have to do with spice.
“I would say that the fact that traditionally charro beans have been spicy, that might be what maybe makes Mexican restaurant owners not make as much or not have it on their menu. Because of the level of spiciness,” Foulis said.
Foulis explained that when she first moved to Ohio around 30 years ago, a lot of the Mexican restaurants in the area were white-owned. And they catered to a mostly non-Mexican, non-Latinx audience. So they were cautious about not making their food too spicy. And the food they did serve was often a kind of Tex-Mex.
“When I say Tex-Mex, it’s the meals that always come with rice and beans and maybe cheese right on top,” Foulis said. “The influence of chips and salsa always at the table, which you don’t always find in restaurants in Mexico.”
Foulis said that over the past decade or so, more and more Mexican-owned restaurants and taquerías have popped up in Ohio. And they’re offering dishes geared more towards Mexican and other Latinx consumers. Things like menudo and tacos made with tongue and tripe.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been to a traditional American restaurant that ever has tongue on their menu,” Foulis said. “So I think that a lot of the Mexican restaurants that are Mexican-owned in Ohio have this sort of mix of dishes on their menus… So you do have some dishes that have more of a Tex-Mex flavor. And then you have other dishes that are clearly more for the Mexican consumer.”
Foulis said that having that mix of dishes is a way for restaurant owners to survive while also maintaining a taste of home. And she said it’s an invitation for non-Mexican customers to try something new.
Back in the kitchen at Viva Jalisco, Ríos added a large can of jalapeños to the pot to give his soup beans some heat. “So we pour jalapeños with the juice. You see the juice?” Ríos said. He explained the jalapeños make the beans a little bit spicy.
When Ríos first started working in restaurants around southern Ohio, he noticed that most of the customers were weary of spicy foods. So frijoles charros was not something he put on the menu when he first opened his restaurant. But now that he has been in the region for a couple decades, he has seen a shift. People are requesting more spice.
“We’re here for almost 20 years,” Ríos said. “A lot of people have started asking for hot sauce, jalapeños.”
And customers have actually started asking for frijoles charros by name. Sometimes it’s Mexican or Mexican-American customers who are in Wellston for travel or work.
“Customers come from Texas, California, Florida,” Ríos said. “They probably travel in United States or work construction.”
Ríos said they often ask: “Hey amigo, you have frijoles charros?”
But sometimes it’s non-Mexican customers who ask for the stew after having tried it at another restaurant. Ríos has also noticed people requesting other traditional Mexican dishes that are becoming better known throughout the United States. Things like tacos al pastor and elote or Mexican street corn.
“A lot of people — a lot of American people love it now, traditional Mexican food,” said Ríos.
With changes in customer base and customer preferences, Ríos has started serving frijoles charros once a week on the buffet line at Viva Jalisco. And he plans for the dish to become a permanent fixture on the menu.
“I got a new menu coming, probably in the next few weeks. We’re going to add frijoles charros to the appetizers,” Ríos said.
And he said that there are also a lot of days when there’s a pot of frijoles charros simmering on the stove at the restaurant — customers just have to know to ask for it. For Elena Foulis, she encourages non-Latinx customers to seek out these foods that might not be as familiar to them.
“You can have your, sort of, traditional comfort food, or what you associate with Mexican or Tex-Mex,” Foulis said. “But look for other dishes that might interest you. They might become your favorite. So why not give it a try?”
In the kitchen at Viva Jalisco, the day’s pot of frijoles charros finished cooking. Amidst the sound of the on-duty cook cutting onions, Ríos ladled me out a piping hot bowl. “So you can try the frijoles charros. But be careful, it’ll be hot,” Ríos said.
As someone who isn’t too keen on spicy food, I was a little nervous. But the smoky flavor, the rich broth, and the acidity of the pickled jalapeños won me over.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.
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