With Southern chefs sourcing everything from trout to tempeh locally, it seems almost impossible they'd overlook something as basic as beans. But Appalachian food advocates say the region's leading kitchens have inadvertently snubbed one of the mountains' most distinctive crops.
"People who like to eat out should see more beans with local history," asserts Peter Marks of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program, who's urging western North Carolina produce distributors to help wean local chefs off the standard Florida snap beans they now use for their soups, casseroles and oh-so-fancy green bean almandines.
Marks' organization is championing the neglected greasy bean as an alternative to the ubiquitous (and often flavorless) bush bean, with its puny beans and limp, stringless pod. Greasys are the beans mountaineers have been eating since European settlers first poked their wagons over the Blue Ridge, and -- depending on which scholar you trust -- possibly for many years before that.
"It's a muscular bean," says Ron Caylor, who annually plants four or five rows of greasys on his farm in Jonesborough, Tenn. "When they're ripe, they just burst with delicious vibes."
More greasy goodness after the jump.
Greasys are so prized in the mountain south that an Appalachian bride's trousseau would traditionally have included a few seeds from her family's unique strain of beans. Such devoted guardianship has produced an unmatched diversity of greasy beans in the North Carolina and Kentucky highlands, with more than 30 known varieties still cultivated on small patches of mountain land.
Each greasy has its own peculiar set of characteristics: the Johnson County bean is skinny as a sleazy mustache, the Lazy Wife bean is long enough to cross a dinner plate and the Brown Speckled bean is -- wait for it -- brown and speckled. Bill Best, an heirloom seed seller who was honored by the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2003 for his work preserving traditional bean culture, is partial to the gorgeously textured White Cut-Short.
But all greasys share one common attribute: They aren't greasy. The name refers to the hairless beans' slick appearance, not their taste. Greasy beans' disappearance from the collective Appalachian larder results not from any shortcomings in their flavor, but a pervasive preference for beans that don't require "unzipping," in mountain parlance. Even those mountain dwellers who don't mind having to shuck their beans the old-fashioned way tend to romanticize half-runners, a hardy bean that began dominating the Southern market in the mid-20th century.
"They say these half-runners are the things to have," Caylor says with a hint of a scoff. "Round here, they're common as can be. But for those of us who care about our food, having fresh greasy beans for dinner is very meaningful."
Caylor prepares his greasy beans in the time-tested way, salted and cooked down with a hunk of pork. Cooking time is a matter of debate among greasy fans: "Some like a little brightness to the bean and some like them beaned to death," Caylor says.
But before folks can fix greasys, they first have to find them. Certain roadside stands and tailgate markets are about the only outlets for greasy beans: Caylor sells his beans for $40 a bushel on Craigslist. He doesn't anticipate his beans will appear on restaurant menus anytime soon.
"I think chefs are too busy to worry about side dishes," he says. "These are just humble little hillbilly beans. But if chefs knew how to do something with them, they're feisty."
Feistier still are the beans' fans, determined to prevent greasys from slipping away. This may be the summer to join their ranks: Greasy bean season starts next month.
Filed Under: Farming
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