By Bill Best (contact the author)
(reprinted with permission)
"Do you have goose bean seeds?"
"Are you familiar with the white fall bean from Harlan County?"
"Did you know there is a richer lode of genetic diversity among beans in Appalachia than anywhere else in the world?"
"Do you know of the greasy grit beans like my grandpa grew in Leslie County, Kentucky?"
Today, during the winter of 1998, one cannot open most seed catalogues without being bombarded by heirloom vegetables and even some seed catalogues are devoted to nothing but heirlooms. Chefs clamor for them and they are winning taste and texture tests whenever they're compared with the bland, tough, generic vegetables which have been bred for long shelf life and ability to withstand being shipped for thousands of miles by train or truck.
It didn't take too many years of growing and selling vegetables at farmers' markets for me to realize that people in general were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with tough, tasteless tomatoes and beans.
I have become increasingly caught up in the heirloom seed phenomenon myself (or perhaps I should say that the phenomenon has caught up with the wisdom of my mother and others like her in the mountains who helped preserve the old seeds).
When I was growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, my father practiced scientific farming whenever he could. He was the first in the community to grow the new hybrid field corns and one of the first to raise registered hogs--Poland Chinas, in his case. He influenced me to grow hybrid corn for a 4-H project when I was in the tenth grade. This led to my setting a North Carolina one acre production record in 1951, and changed my life by sending me to the National 4-H Club Congress in Chicago.
Daddy never got to finish the seventh grade; Mother completed high school. Daddy and Mother both were eager to learn about new things, but my mother also wanted to grow and preserve the old seeds, especially beans. I guess you could say she believed in preserving at least the best of the old. Mother listened intently to the home agents who visited in the community and she participated in their cooking, canning, and sewlng demonstrations, but I suspect she taught them more than any of them taught her.
Each summer I helped her pick the various cornfield beans for eating fresh, for canning, or drying into what we called "leather britches," and for saving as seed for the following year's crop.
After being away from home a few years to attend college at Berea and graduate school at the University of Tennessee, I left to do active duty in the army After my term of service was over, I taught a year in Knoxville, Tennessee. Then my wife and I moved to Berea where I have been an administrator and teacher at the college for the past thirty six years.
We quickly bought a farm, and I again started gardening. It wasn't a conscious decision-just what I thought I ought to be doing and a continuation of what I had done most of my life. I also thought that our children should be exposed to gardening as I had been.
At first, following the path of least resistance while getting started, I fell into my father's ways of doing things. I ordered my seeds from the slickest seed catalogues and began making the Burpees of the world richer and happier and more dominant in gardening and agriculture in general.
But every fall, when we would be visiting my family, Mother would give me seed beans which she had saved from that summer and remind me that I ought to be growing them. She didn't say why, but simply said that I ought to keep growing them. Gradually I started growing her beans again, and today grow nothing but the heirlooms.
Now, thirty years later, it is plainly evident that Mother was far ahead of her time. She intuitively felt that the new beans being released by the experiment stations and seed companies, and the old beans which had been "improved" by plant breeders, were lacking She knew that they were becoming increasingly bland and tough and had nothing of the flavor and tenderness of the beans which had been passed down in the mountains for generations.
Dr. Elmer Gray, a Berea graduate from Jackson County, Kentucky, who is a plant geneticist and the current dean of graduate studies at Western Kentucky University, is interested in saving as many heirloom beans as possible and has spoken to groups about the importance of maintaining as much genetic diversity as possible because, once lost, these plants will not be available for future use.
When my children were very young, we started growing vegetables for the Lexington and Berea farmers' markets (In fact, we were charter members of both.) I didn't throw away my seed catalogues, but I did start growing and marketing Mother's beans and I also began going back to the types of tomatoes I had grown up with.
For about twenty years I have been an avid collector and grower of many beans and tomatoes which I have collected throughout the mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Currently I have at least thirty excellent beans, all collected from the Appalachian area. I also grow at least eighty heirloom tomatoes, many of which also came from the mountains.
I invited people who came to the farmers' market in Lexington, Kentucky, to bring me samples of the seeds they talked about and they often did so. Sometimes they brought seeds from a freezer which had belonged to a grandparent who had been dead for a dozen years or more. Many also brought tomato seeds for me which a relative might have squirreled away in a freezer years ago. Each bean had its own story and was usually named after the person or family which had propagated it for a number of years, or even generations. To my regret, I did not always collect information about the history of the seeds givenme over the years. But I have realized the value of such and now try to document each new seed as much as possible and have started trying to trace down others which I have had for years.
Before going into a discussion of the various varieties of heirlooms, I want to first characterize them by types:
Cornfield Beans. Better than ninety-five percent of the heirlooms are climbing beans popularly known as cornfield beans. Historically they were planted in corn fields and allowed to climb the corn stalks. They were harvested while the corn was still green and before it was either cut and shocked or topped above the ears for fodder. Of those climbing beans, there are three distinct types. One is known simply as the Cornfield Bean, which just means that it is a climbing bean. Another is known as the Cut Short, which simply means that the beans are so closely packed in the pod that they square off on the ends. In other words, they are "cut short." The final one is The Greasy Bean, which means that it doesn't have the fuzz of most beans and is slick or "greasy" in appearance. A bean can be a combination of all three types and, for example, be a "long speckled greasy cut-short cornfield bean." These beans are of many colors and shapes, as will be discussed later.
Bunch Beans. I know of very few heirloom bunch beans but there are some important ones. These beans do not send out runners but sit squat on the ground. Commercial or "institutional" beans are almost always bunch beans which have been bred for machine harvest. I cannot imagine cornfield beans being harvested by a machine. One I recently obtained from John Allen in Cartersville, Kentucky is a brown speckled greasy cut-short. It is an excellent bean which I will grow for the first time this summer. He has not yet located its origin but thinks it is from Western North Carolina, as are so many of the other heirlooms.
The Half Runner. In the popular imagination, the half-runner, of which there are many varieties, is the standard fresh, freezing, and canning bean. It is a heavy yielding bean which combines some of the best growth characteristics of both the bunch and cornfield beans, being prolific without being unwieldy. However, its popularity has led to its near demise.
About thirty to forty years ago when it became the most popular multipurpose bean, it also attracted the attention of commercial seed producers. In their infinite wisdom, and to satisfy the demands of grocers for a long shelf-life bean, they decided to toughen the bean for shipping and shelf-life purposes Of course, they had to toughen it significantly. Consequently, the modern half-runner has become so tough that many gardeners are refusing to grow it and most customers will buy it only if they can't get some of the heirlooms. After searching for many years, I think I have finally found an heirloom half-runner which I will try for the first time this summer. At this point, I would advise no one to grow a commercial half-runner.
Lest I be seen simply as someone who romanticizes the heirlooms for historic purposes only, let me say that two of my granddaughters, three year old Alex and two year old Sarah, already know beans about beans. When they request beans for supper, they mean only the heirlooms without being romantic about it at all. They mean a bean that has a bean inside, not the bean hulls that commonly masquerade as beans nowadays. Both call them "real beans" and I can think of no better way to describe them. Japanese beetles, Mexican bean beetles, and two granddaughters crazy about the heirlooms can't all be wrong.
Barnes Mountain Bean. This bean was given to me by Ott McMaine of Bybee, Kentucky. He got it from a farmer on Barnes Mountain in Estill County, Kentucky. I have been to Barnes Mountain several times in the past two years, but have still not been able to completely trace down the source of this bean.
Seay Bean. This is an excellent white cut-short bean from Buncombe County in North Carolina, named for the Seay family which developed it. I got the Seay Bean from Mary McLaughlin in Berea, KY. This bean is from her husband's mother's side of the family in Buncombe County, North Carolina.
Big John Bean. Along the same line of the Barnes Mountain bean but somewhat shorter and lighter in color is this bean, which originated in Letcher County, Kentucky. The seed was given me by Rosemary Francis of Bourbon County, Kentucky, whose brother, Pete Ingram, grows them in Indiana, where he now lives. He also grows a purple fall bean for which he has given me seed recently and I will grow soon. Pete and Rosemary were raised in Knott County, Kentucky. He got his beans from his mother some years ago. I also shared the Seay and Barnes Mountain seeds with Pete and Rosemary.
Brown Speckled and Long White Greasy Beans. I have a brown speckled cornfield greasy and a late long white greasy, both of which I purchased some years ago at the Western North Carolina farmers' market. When I was unsuccessful in purchasing the seeds outright, I purchased mature beans instead and shelled out my own seeds. Both are North Carolina beans and I hope to trace down the origins of each. Both are also excellent beans but somewhat prone to infestation by the Mexican bean beetle. Just as humans do, insects tend to prefer greasy beans, with both the Mexican bean beetle and the Japanese beetle preferring them over all others.
Edwards Bean. This is a brown striped bean similar in external appearance to the Missouri Wonder but more tender and with a somewhat milder flavor. These beans are my best selling brown beans; there is a long list of faithful customers who wait for them each summer. The seed came from Gray Hawk, in Jackson County, Kentucky, and was given to me by Margaret Johnson, a neighbor who has family members still living in the Gray Hawk area.
Goose Bean. I remember distinctly the "goose beans" we grew and Mother's story about her grandfather killing a wild goose and her grandmother taking the beans out of the craw and beginning to grow them each year. The goose bean is meaty and tender and I still grow them and share my seeds with others who want to get a start. (I found out many years later that the story of the goose bean has became a world-wide myth. But it's entirely possible that Mother's story about our particular family goosebeans was factually correct as well.)
Greasy, Cut-short, and White Cornfield Beans. I recently visited the Asheville Farmer's Market and purchased three new beans from Clive Whitt who is North Carolina's best known trader in greasy beans. Clive is eighty four, was an educator for 43 years, and still works at the Asheville Farmer's Market. He certainly knows beans about beans (pun intended). Since I haven't grown the three I got from him yet, I don't know if either might duplicate a bean I already have.
Johnson County Bean. These are very long and thin greasy cut-short, the likes of which I have never seen before. A lady in her late eighties gave me the seed in Lexington a few years ago which had, she said, been in her family for generations. They are of excellent flavor and texture, but tend to ripen all at once and have to be picked in the space of a few days. Unfortunately, I did not get her name and family history. She said she had lived in Lexington a number of years and that she always kept her Johnson County seed beans in the freezer
Lazy Wife Bean. Clive Whitt told me about this bean but he did not have seed for them. He said it is a very long greasy bean. There are probably more heirloom beans originating in Madison County, North Carolina, than anywhere else in the country, especially in the Shelton Laurel area.
Logan Giant. This bean comes from West Virginia. It was swapped to me by Spot Jennings of Cartersville, Kentucky, in exchange for some North Carolina long greasies. The Logan Giant is another excellant tasting brown cornfield bean which has all the attributes of beans already described.
Nickel Bean. The Nickel Bean of Morgan County, Kentucky, is an heirloom type of white half-runner which is somewhat longer than the commercial types which now dominate the seed bins of feed/seed stores. A man from Laurel County, Kentucky came to trade some beans after an article about me appeared in a 1987 issue of the Rural Kentuckian (nowKentucky Living). The article generated a lot of interest and a lot of mail for me. I received over eighty letters from individuals in six states the following year. Several visited me in person. Most were wanting seeds of the little greasy cut-short, but a few gave me interesting information about beans in general and a few wanted to swap bean seeds. I answered all letters and sent the beans requested if I had them.
Ora's Speckled Bean. Last year at the Lexington farmers' market, someone gave me this seed which I grew for the first time this summer. It is an excellent speckled greasy cut-short about the size of the two white greasy cut-shorts: It has a wonderful flavor, and I still have the task of tracing down who gave it to me.
Tennessee Cornfield Bean. From the foothills of Tennessee, I have this seed, given me by Harold and Bernease Wallace of Lexington, Kentucky. The mature bean is moderately brown in color and like the other brown beans, it is not in high demand but has a loyal following. The Wallaces also gave me this written information concerning the bean: "Tennessee Corn Field Bean--Wallace Family from Silver Point, Tennessee. Carroll and Minnie Wallace reared four sons on these beans. Has been in the family for more than 63 years." This is the only bean I have which I know came from Tennessee. For some reason, most of the heirloom types seem to come from North Carolina and Kentucky, perhaps because Tennessee has a long history of commercial bean production and the older types may have died out.
White Fall and Lima Beans, come from Harlan County, Kentucky; the white fall bean is stringless, but not a heavy producer. Seeds for both beans were given to me by Dr. Bill Leach, whose grandfather gave the land for the Pine Mountain Settlement School. A Berea graduate, Bill now lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, and works for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Rockville, Maryland. In addition to his beans, Bill also continues to grow some family open pollinated corn and other vegetables.
White Greasy Cut-Short Bean. I have two white greasy cut-shorts which are very similar in appearance, one from Jackson County, Kentucky, and one from Haywood County, North Carolina (my home county), but which mature at least a month apart even when planted on the same day. Both have excellent flavor and texture and are in high demand. I don't grow many of either, however, because it is so time consuming to pick them. Even at $2.00 per pound, the common going rate for greasies of all types, it is hard to justify raising many of them for sale.
In addition to the beans just described, in my freezer I have seeds from at least a dozen beans which I have not yet grown. However, I hope to plant and grow them this coming summer. Included among them is a bean which grew among some brown speckled greasy cut-shorts I had been growing a number of years. It is a very long, nongreasy, white bean totally unlike the parent beans, and I don't even know what it will taste like since I had only one plant and wanted to save all the beans for a trial run. I will try them next summer to see if I have discovered my own personal bean through a mutation in my own crop.
It is fairly easy to develop a family bean. They are quite subject to mutation and by carefully selecting and growing the mutant beans, one can develop a strain which essentially breeds true each year. Then by selecting among those beans for a desired quality, it is further possible to slowly guide the beans so selected in a certain direction. For example, you can mark the beans which bloom earliest, save only those for seed, and gradually have a bean which matures two or more weeks earlier, a desired quality when one is hungry for fresh beans.
Over the years I have tried a few beans twice and have then stopped growing them for various reasons. I have one brown greasy cut-short that has something of a sulfur flavor which cuts down on its appeal significantly. The Maupin brown bean has an excellent flavor but is so disease prone that I stopped growing it. Perhaps in a very dry summer, it would not have so much disease.
To say these beans I have been describing are becoming popular is an understatement. I could not possibly grow enough to supply the demand in Lexington, not to mention the rest of Kentucky, Any visitor to the Western Carolina farmers' market at Asheville from July through October can witness the wonderful variety of greasy beans being sold by any number of producers and vendors at prices double, triple, and sometimes quadruple those of commercial or institutional beans.
Concurrent with the renewed interest in heirloom vegetables, it often occurs to me that heirloom values might also be making a comeback for many of the same reasons. Mainstream values, brought into the mountains by Northeastern industrialists and their missionary brothers and sisters, have proven to be bland and tough and to ship well, but when it comes to human relationships, they leave much to be desired. Our older values of neighborliness, honesty, trust, and compassion, while perhaps considered trite and naive by the sophisticated, just might be a good antidote for some of the cynicism bred by our large generic and impersonal institutions.