I finally spent a half hour looking into leather britches beans, and I found out a lot in just that little bit of time.
For people who don’t already know, leather britches is really a preservation/cooking method for green beans. Mature beans are threaded onto strings to dry, and later cooked, usually with some kind of pork for seasoning (I don’t eat any kind of pork, but I’m working on this one step at a time). This is a very “old-timey” way of preserving beans for use in the winter.
I had heard that any kind of green bean can be used for making these, but my experience with the beans in my yard had made me think that some varieties of beans would work better than others. Basically, Burpee’s Tenderpod, which is a great green bean for fresh eating, shrivels to almost non-existence in drying, and the flavor is dramatically less than great. After reading my new book “The Resilient Gardener” by Carol Deppe, who found that some squash varieties were better than others for drying, I knew I would have to do some actual work to figure this out.
The writer over at vegetablesofinterest.typepad.com confirmed that thought:
The hulls of today’s beans all become very tough as the bean matures. Some gardeners will dry a commercial string bean as a substitute for ‘old time’ Leather Britches beans but they risk criticism from historians, Southern chefs and anyone who has tasted the real thing.
It turns out that more than one gardener recommends “greasy beans,” especially the “greasy cut shorts,” for this use. Steve from Western North Carolina, posting at newsgroups.derkeiler.com, said:
There are at least 3 different greasy beans grown by seed savers in Western NC. All are pole beans and strong runners. The Greasy Cut short has only 4-6 beans to the pod, so they’re just strung and broken in 1/2. The long greasy (my type) has 8-11 beans per pod and then there is the big greasy. It has 8-11 beans and a very thick, fleshy pod.
I like to let the long greasy get very full before picking. The beans have a rich, nutty flavor and are wonderful for canning. The cut shorts make the best “leather britches”.
At the site community.berea.edu is this comment:
“Black greasy” beans were a popular old-fashioned variety. They could be eaten fresh out of the garden or canned. When strung and dried, they were called “leather britches” or “shucky” beans.
A poster on the gardenweb forums agreed with the above comments:
Until her demise my adoptive granny, Sarah Lou Back, made leather britches every year. Her bean of choice was Greasy Grits, and there were so many strings of them hanging from her porch you couldn’t see through what superficially looked like a bamboo curtain.
The writer at vegetablesofinterest.typepd.com added some other bean varieties to the leather britches list:
By general acclaim the best heirloom bean varieties to make Leather Britches include the Barnes Mountain Cornfield Bean, Pink Tip Greasy Bean, Tobacco Worm Bean and the NT Half Runner Bean.
Other writers added white half-runners to the list of good varieties for leather britches, and it sounds as though any bean described as a “shucky bean” is also a good candidate.
The writer at vegetablesofinterest included one more piece of very useful information in his post, the name and URL for a source of heirloom beans: Bill Best’s Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center Inc.’s catalogue. Since this is the season for planning, I will be looking more closely at this particular catalogue.