Don’t be fooled into thinking I’m an expert on Appalachian cuisine.
No...I’m an expert on Big Macs, sweet and sour pork, and pepperoni pizzas. Appalachian cuisine is something I’ve had to learn about in adulthood, and in San Francisco, despite having grown up where I did and having grandparents born and raised in the deep, dark hollers that blanket the region like a patchwork quilt of red brick churches, apple orchards, and moonshine stills.
The few carry-over foods from my grandparents to my mother to me, I abhorred. Pinto beans and string beans were about as bland and uninteresting as you could get to a young boy use to plates of meatball-topped spaghetti and “barbecued” cheeseburgers. So, I’ve had a lot of learning and unlearning to do, especially about foods I eschewed in favor of Generican (generic American) food. Why I do so is complicated and conflicted; I am a motherlode of neuroses for any therapist or preacher to mine.
Have you heard of shucky beans? Or leather britches? Well, me neither until recently. String beans I have heard of. In fact, I spent many summer afternoons stringing them only so my mother could throw them in a big, dangerous pressure cooker and have them ready for Sunday supper.
Well, shucky beans or leather britches are string beans – what most people out here call green beans – that have been dried. Actually, string beans are hard to come by in California. Most of what we get are those ubiquitous Blue Lake beans; a stringless variety developed in Oregon in the early 20th century and once only popular amongst canners. Nowadays, Blue Lake beans are the de facto green bean of both the supermarket and farmers’ market shelves and, frankly, the lack of variety annoys the hell out of me.
Oh sure, sometimes you’ll find Romano or Kentucky Wonder beans for sale at the farmers’ market. I saw some last Tuesday at the Ferry Building for $5 a pound. You’ll also see the yellow wax bean and haricot verts on occasion, which I’m sure are lovely in their own way.
Other than what I’ve mentioned, you will not see in California any bush or pole bean that is a heirloom variety or even a common Southern variety, like the creasy (or greasy) bean. Heirloom tomatoes we have out the wazoo, but don’t expect to see heirloom green beans – even at the food porn palace.
I’ve decided to experiment and make my own shucky beans using that lowly and common Blue Lake bean; a gentle $1 per pound. I’m not really dogging it; I do enjoy the flavor of Blue Lake beans. It’s just that I still have the urge to pull off a string and the fact that these are stringless makes me feel as though I’ve been robbed of an important culinary tradition.
Is this really progress? That these stringless, uniform beans dominate the market stalls?
Anyway, shucky beans are made by first washing the beans to remove any residual dirt or whathaveyou and then riffling through them, picking out the misfits and snapping off the ends simultaneously. It helps to have animal oversight available while you do this in order to catch your misses and offer up advice on when the cat box needs changing.
Then you take a needle and thread (I double up the thread) and “string” the beans by pushing the needle through the center of each bean and collecting them towards the end of the string. I find that having a horizontal work surface, like a cookie sheet, to work on is helpful. As far as what kind of string to use: I used both dental floss and polyester sewing thread and didn’t experience a problem with either.
After about 2 or 3 feet of this green bean garland, tie off the strings at the end and then tie the whole thing to form a loop. It’s now ready to hang and dry.
If I had a shady front porch that was screened in, I’d hang them there. As it is, I live the dirtiest part of town by a bridge with no protected porch to sit on, string beans on, sing an old ballad on, or even pet my old coonhounds on.
Instead, I have a whale rib hanging from my ceiling and a small fan plugged into the wall adjacent to it. This is where I will hang the beans to dry for the next month. A small desk fan I’ve set up near the beans is turned on to circulate the air around the beans so that they don’t mold, especially since I have them drying out of the sunlight.
My cats are fascinated by the hanging beans at first. And then, like with all things (excluding shoelaces and paper bags), they grow bored and ease back into the jaded, lazy bums that I love so much.
After a couple of weeks, the beans are dry enough so that I can turn off the fan and let them dry for another week or two. Now’s the time to decide whether to put them in storage (a paper bag works well) or to cook some up. Of course I’ve decided to do both!
Most people will say to soak the beans overnight after you’ve washed them. They also will tell you to add salt after you’ve cooked them and both of these ideas I don’t necessarily disagree with. However, I sometimes suck at following instructions.
What I did, instead, was take about 2 cups of dried shucky beans (or 1 string of them) and rinsed them off. Next, I brought 2 quarts of water to a boil and then added 2 teaspoons of salt. Next, I added the shucky beans and let that boil for approximately 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
While the shucky beans were boiling, I heated a slow cooker (or Crock pot, or whatever you want to call it) on high with half a cup of water already in it. After boiling the beans for 10 minutes, I removed them from the heat, let it cool for a few minutes, and then added everything, plus a country ham hock, to the Crock pot.
Once covered, I left it alone to cook on high for 6 hours.
After 6 hours of cooking, the beans were tender and rich. They, along with the meat on the ham hock, were soft, tender and rich, as was the broth they cooked in. Perhaps it was the cured flavor of the ham coming through, but everything had a strong umami flavor. Drying the beans really does concentrate the bean flavor while also allowing the slow cooking process to work its magic.
Using a slotted spoon, I removed the beans from the broth onto a plate. The broth I ended up taking to work the next day for lunch. I flaked off the meat from the hock to garnish the beans and that was it – no seasoning necessary.
Of course, what better to go with a side of shucky beans than a sliced fried Country Ham and a freshly made buttermilk biscuit?
I’m not one to toot my own horn (or am I?), but I’m pretty sure Bruce and I were the only two souls in this city of 750,000 to have a plate of shucky beans, country ham, and biscuits that night. That’s pretty presumptuous - sure - but I also know this town pretty well, and this type of cuisine and the people who'd serve it aren’t very common here.
And there’s a certain mix of feeling both special and lonely while enjoying a meal like this – a conflicted feeling.
But perhaps I’m just complicating things again.
It’s not that complicated.