Rich People Don’t Eat This Good: A Few Facts About Appalachian-Style Beans & Taters
By Katie Hoffman, Marketing & Promotions Director, Fall Line Farms and Local Roots
Brett' Tiller's garden. (And mine.) A row of corn between two rows of beans, with potatoes on the far right. this year, we grew greasy beans and half-runners. (Greasy beans are called this not because of actual greasy, but because their pods are slick and shiny compared to other snaps and string beans.)
My husband Brett and his family have a particular variety of half runner beans that they’ve been growing for years. Someone at their church gave them the seeds decades ago. They don’t remember who. And they don’t remember the name of the variety. But boy, are these beans good—especially when they’re paired with their natural partners: freshly dug garden potatoes! We save seed and grow them every year. Beans are important in our family tradition.
There are a couple of things you might be interested to know about beans in Appalachia. Mountain folks don’t pick their beans when they’re slender and small. They wait until they’re a little “full,” meaning that the pod looks lumpy because the seeds are well developed inside. This is the stage at which these beans are worth the most in terms of nutrition—bigger bean seeds mean more protein, which was a boon during long Appalachian winters.
Another thing about traditional Appalachian food (early-to-mid 20th century and before) is that Appalachians used meat more as a flavoring than a main course. There was no refrigeration, so it was hard to keep meat fresh for long. Chickens and other smaller animals were served, and pork was a staple because it was easy to cure and preserve. Beef was less common. Beans were central to the Appalachian diet. They were an important way of making sure that there was adequate protein in what people ate. That’s why we pick ‘em when they’re “full instead of slender: well-developed seed in the bean pods = more protein.
Compared to meat, beans were easy to grow and easy to store. Early on, before canning came along in the 19th century, mountain women would string and break their green beans, thread a needle, and create a garland of bean pods that they would hang to dry. Kitchen attics and cabin ceilings were festooned with these dried beans, traditionally called “leatherbritches.”
In the winter, cooks would pull down as many as they needed, slip them off the string, rinse them, then put them in a pot of water to boil and be reconstituted. If you’ve ever had them, you know the unmistakable umami of this beloved dish. Once canning came along, root cellars were filled with jars of these beautiful green beans, sitting on the shelves above crocks of fermenting kraut and other vegetables (including more beans!). These stores of food saw mountaineers through many a long, cold winter.
Potatoes were another root cellar staple. Brett’s family (and now our household) prefers Kennebecs and Red Pontiacs. We grow two different rounds crops of potatoes—one crop that’s planted on Good Friday, when the moon is right, and that’s coming in right about now (late July/early August). Then we plant a June crop that we harvest in the fall. The first potatoes are the eat-now taters. The fall one are for winter enjoyment, with a few saved over to plant again in the spring.
Right now, with both coming in, we are enjoying our big batches of beans and taters, cooked together slowly in water with salt, pepper, bacon grease, and bits of bacon. We make a big batch and eat on it for a week or so, pulling out what we need for a meal and heating it up. The perfect accompaniments are sliced fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, or fried squash. If the groundhogs and raccoons don’t beat us to it, there’s also fresh sweet corn. No urgent need for meat, as the beans and taters are pretty filling themselves.
This is our next-to-the-last picking of the beans. A little over four bushels as I write this. Lots of work in canning them, but so very but worth it over the winter!
Contrary to what you might have heard, Appalachian food is not poor. It's rich in taste. It's absolutely delicious. My experiences in the garden and kitchen learning these traditions prompted me to create a hashtag that I use on my own social media posts: #richpeopledonteatthisgood. That’s because there’s nothing like fresh green beans, just-dug potatoes, tomatoes still warm from the sun, and sweet corn that’s been picked, shucked, then plunged into boiling water and then eaten with plenty of butter and salt!
Beans and taters together make a filling and delicious summer meal. Best of all, it's a cook-once-and-eat-several-times proposition.
Want to try it yourself? Here's a link to the "recipe." You can order beans and potatoes and whatever fresh veggies you like to accompany them through our market, Fall Line Farms and Local Roots, at www.falllinefarms.com.
Rich people won't be eatin' as good as you!