This is the first summer in a decade that I haven’t had a small garden at the house.
After we bought the house – which seems like a lifetime ago – I borrowed a tiller and tore up a stretch of the backyard. I was hoping to have a small garden where we could raise a few tomatoes, green beans, zucchini and more.
It wasn’t very successful. The soil was bad back there, all hard clay, nothing to work with.
The only thing that really grew much at all was a single pumpkin plant. And that plant grew vines all over the backyard. The result was a single massive pumpkin that was not quite big enough to wow ‘em at the county fair.
Still, it would have sold for $30 or $40 at any respectable pumpkin patch.
The next year, I built raised beds and filled them with bags of dark, enriched soil.
The success was significantly better. For example, we grew massive tomato plants and huge zucchini. But we didn’t have much luck getting production out of anything else. One year, a smattering of beans. Yet another year, a handful of okra.
For several years, we did well with tomatoes and zucchini and not much else.
But as the kids got older and the summers got busier, I wasn’t able to devote the necessary time to our small garden. Travel ball and all-stars ate up the weekends. And various rec leagues and practices took care of the weeknights.
Last year, the garden was basically an exercise in throwing money away.
This year, it didn’t happen at all. On the weekends I was free to plant, it was too cold or stormy or something else came up.
Before I knew it, it was too late.
The old ways of gardening
Nanny and Papaw are my connections to the old ways. Specifically, to the days when keeping a garden meant something more than a weekend hobby. It’s a link to the time when a failed crop meant the winter was going to be that much harder.
Of course, by the time I was old enough to remember, Nanny and Papaw’s garden and the canning and pickling and all the things they did that stemmed from their Depression-era youth were more tradition and hobby than a necessity.
But it wasn’t always that way. Papaw grew up poor, the son of hard parents whose only real affection was survival. There was more love in Nanny’s house, but it was hard, too. Her mom passed away young and she was left to raise the younger siblings.
To me – in addition to loving grandparents – they served as a bridge to an era that would otherwise be foreign to me. For example, they heated with a wood stove. And so I grew up and learned how to split wood, to stoke a fire, to control the dampers and vents. This process kept the house warm overnight without burning too hotly or not hot enough.
And I also grew up in the garden. I learned how to tell when the corn was just right or when to give the radishes a couple more days. Except for chopping wood when old enough, I am not saying I did the hard work. I learned a little and also stayed out of the way.
A connection with the past
So my little garden has been in some ways, a connection to that past. I’ve hoped that when the kids help me pick a tomato or pluck a carrot from the ground or plant a pepper, there’s a small seed planted within them as well.
That when they get older they’ll remember their dad, who enjoys manual labor about as much as having bamboo shoved under his fingernails, down in the dirt, spending time, effort and money to grow tomatoes he could buy for $2 a pound at the Farmers Market.
And when they remember dad, they’re honoring a Nanny and Papaw who grew up dirt poor in the Depression. And honoring those they never met, who farmed for their lives in orchards and gardens. Those who learned how to survive off of what they could make and grow.
Back then, canning, pickling and preserving were not hobbies. Each year, you hoped you grew enough apples, potatoes or beans to put back to last the long winter months when things got hard.
I’m rambling now, lost in an expanse of time that seems infinitely distant from the beeps and bloops of the modern world but isn’t so far removed as we might think.
I don’t remember Nanny ever making leather britches beans, but I wouldn’t rule it out, either. There was always a string of something dry in the pantry or the kitchen. But I’m pretty sure she always canned her beans in mason jars.
What are leather britches beans?
They’re green beans dried while still in the pod. And then they are then rehydrated and slow-cooked. Usually with some sort of pork. They were a popular food source in the years before the national park.
And now, they are making something of a comeback among the foodie scenes in the mountains. Especially around Asheville and Western NC.
They’re also called leather breeches, shucky beans, shuck beans or dried beans. They’re called leather britches because the rehydrated beans look like leather pants that have gotten wet and been dried.
What kind of beans are leather britches?
They are fresh green beans without any fuzz, also known as greasy beans. Pink tips are among the best for this. You can order a pack of Pink Tip green bean seeds – called that because the pods will get a pinkish hue – for $5 online.
They’re heirloom beans. They are popular, especially in Haywood County, but really any type of non-fuzzy green bean will do. You do want fresh beans, however.
The beans are hung up to dry indoors over a period of weeks, even months.
How do you string up green beans?
To string the beans, the first thing you do is snap the whole bean in half or thirds for longer beans. Some folks dry the beans without breaking them. Then, take a needle and thread and draw the drying string through the pod – careful to avoid the bean.
Make sure your thread beans are not touching each other as the air facilitates the drying process. You want a string that’s two or three feet long, enough that you can comfortably hold them from one end to another.
Hang them in a dry place, maybe in the pantry or the kitchen. If you have a wood stove, you can hang them near the heat.
I’ve read about a restaurant in Asheville that does a lot of smoking. Their beans hang over the smoker to get more of that smoky flavor.
The drying process can take such a long time, I recommend doing enough beans to make it worth your while. Remember as they dry up, they’re going to shrivel. With enough water, they will rehydrate. But if you want a proper mess of beans, do a large amount.
Once the beans are dry, pull them off the string and store them in a paper bag or an old flour sack. You can call the bag a poke if you want to feel authentically old-time Appalachian.
Is this why they call them string beans?
It’s a logical inference, after all. Pole beans are varieties that need to be staked and grow along a pole. However, the term string beans refer to a type of bean that used to be more prevalent.
They had a long, fibrous string in the pod. When breaking beans, you’d snap off each end, pull out the string and then break the pods into sections. The string has been genetically engineered out of many varieties of modern beans.
How do you cook leather britches beans?
There are a couple of ways to do it. The Old Appalachian way is about as you’d expect.
Take your beans, throw in a large pot and cover them in multiple cups of water, depending on how big a mess of beans you’re cooking. Then you season with salt and some kind of fatty pork for flavor. You can throw in some salt pork, a piece of fat back or a ham hock. Dropping in some bacon grease wouldn’t be out of line.
Cook them on medium heat until the bean is rehydrated, looks good and leathery, but chewable. Your finished product will be chewier than you’re used to, even a little meaty.
Leather britches beans are hearty, a long way from a traditional side dish and are good with a hot pan of cornbread.
Of course, you are not bound by the limits that faced your forebears. You have modern refrigeration and special equipment like a pressure cooker.
There are a lot of effective methods to prepare your leather britches. Throw in some garlic cloves and onions. Hit it with a heavy shot of black pepper or hot sauce. I’ve seen recipes that want to be healthier – replacing the pork with another fat, like olive oil.
I’ve seen some that incorporate soy sauce.
The key, however, is to cook them low and slow. You could even throw them in a Dutch oven or Crock-Pot and let them cook on minimal heat all day.
What do leather britches taste like?
Chicken. No, I kid.
A lot of the taste depends on how you prepare them and the type and amount of pork fat you use to season. The beans remain fairly receptive to the flavors you add, but the bean and pod itself will essentially be a more intense green bean flavor. It’s chewy and meatier.
But it’s more green bean-y.
You’ll have to try and decide for yourself.
Have you tried leather britches beans? Do you have a good leather britches tip? Let us know in the comments.