Some foods just taste like the past.
Food writer Sheri Castle says shuck beans, also known as shucky beans, or leather britches, taste like the past to her. Castle, a Southern cook who was born in Watagua County, North Carolina, but now lives in Fearrington Village, says there is nothing that tastes quite like them.
“To me, there is a tannic nature to them – a mustiness,” she said. “They taste of an old thing… they taste of antiquity.”
Shuck beans are dried green beans; a dish Castle said is known mostly in Appalachia, and perhaps most well-known in Kentucky. To make them, one takes fresh green beans whole and dries them out. In some cases, beans are strung up using a needle and thread, and left to dry out in an arid place.
“The key is to dry the pods as you dry the beans,” Castle said.
Once dried, the beans are put in cloth or paper bags, sometimes with a dried pepper included to keep out insects, or thrown into plastic bags and stored in the freezer.
To prepare them, they need to be rehydrated and then cooked like regular green beans with a bit of bacon, she said. Preserving them this way preserves the protein in the bean. Mountain families would use the beans as a way to make crops last through the winter. Even today, however, some families, like mine, remember winter dinners of shucky beans, served with nothing more than a thick slab of real cornbread slathered in butter and maybe some raw onion on the side.
My cousin, Christy Baker, of London, Kentucky, remembers her mother, my Aunt Sue Cody – one of the women who taught me how to cook – making them.
“Mom didn’t dry them on a string,” she said. “We would break them up and spread them on a sheet in a single layer. She would put them on the porch or on the dining room table if it was raining. Sometimes, she would turn a fan on them.”
Every once in a while, she said, it was important to stir them to make sure all of the surfaces of the beans were exposed to air and dried. But every cook has their own method, she said.
“My Aunt Bert (Dad’s sister) would put the sheet on a piece of tin roofing outside, or on the hood of the car… faster drying in the sun on metal, I suppose,” she said. “I have even seen her dry them in the back window of her car if it looked like rain.”
Christy said she likes them, but they have a strong flavor and a weird texture.
“They were never my favorite, but Mom loved them,” she recalled. “I remember Mom calling them shucky beans more than leather britches… and I think she talked about cooking them during the holidays, but I don’t remember actually having them that often… there were so many recipes of hers that I wish I had recorded somehow.”
Erik Herrin, of Lexington, Kentucky, said shucky beans is a recipe his family is handing down through the generations – his mother learned from her mother, just like his daughter is learning from him. Growing up in Kentucky, it was something his family ate often.
“My granny lived just a few hundred yards from us,” he said. “My mother and grandmother cooperated in a lot of things like making apple butter and all kinds of stuff. My mother was a lot more proficient than my grandmother was, but my mother grew up in a poor family. They raised a big garden too, so they canned and processed foods long before my mother married my father.”
Like many other coal mining families, he said, his family canned foods. Shucky beans were just another way to have food during the winter months.
“A lot of times they would be cooked on a holiday, but not always,” he said. “My daughter loves them, so we will cook them when she comes for special occasions.”
Herrin says he’s changed the way he makes them. Now, he uses a mini dehydrator. That process leaves a little green on them, he says.
Castle said the origin of shuck beans is likely an accident. The only beans that are good for shuck beans are string beans like Kentucky half runners, which explains why it’s not more well-known outside of the Appalachian region.
“It is the only dried bean that I can think of where you eat the hull and the bean,” she said. “I always have to wonder if it was an accident that they figured out how to make them.”
Ensuring the tradition of shucky beans continues is no accident, however. For the dish to live, home cooks will have to continue passing the dish down from one generation to the next.
“Shuck beans are a powerful taste memory,” Castle said. “And if you lose the taste memory of a dish, that food is lost.”