Good and greasy

While area chefs have dutifully stocked their pantries with Hickory Nut Gap meats, Sunburst Farms trout and Spinning Spider cheeses, Appalachian food advocates say perhaps the most local of local foods is still missing from area menus.

Photo by Jonathan Welch

"People who like to eat out should see more beans with local history," asserts Peter Marks of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, which has boldly declared July "Greasy Bean Month" in an effort to combat local chefs' penchant for cooking with standard Florida snap beans.

Sone bean experts just shake their heads at the puny, stringless bush beans that now show up in soups, salads and — at high-cotton eateries — in green-bean almandines. Greasys are brawny, tender and drenched with flavor that aficionados say will never be matched by beans engineered for mechanized processing.

"Greasy beans are considered the Cadillac, the Mercedes, the Maserati, while Blue Lakes are considered the Yugo," says Bill Best, director of the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center. "The best thing to say is the development of the modern bean is, it's a crime against humanity."

The rise of the Blue Lake bean is also an affront to Appalachian culinary heritage, because greasys have been a mainstay of mountain gardens since the first European settlers pushed their wagons over the Blue Ridge (and — if recent archaeological research holds — probably long before that).

Greasy beans — which owe their name to their distinctively shiny, fuzz-free pod — were so cherished by early mountaineers that a bride's trousseau often included a few seeds from her family's unique strain. Such devoted guardianship 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.

But heirloom-bean collectors acknowledge that the hub of greasy-bean diversity is just north of the Buncombe County line, with the Farmer's Market on Brevard Road boasting perhaps the finest assemblage of greasys found anywhere. Asheville is where folks like Best come to shop.

From his trips to the Farmer's Market and countless meetings with farmers, Best has produced a primitive taxonomy of greasys. Every greasy bean is slightly different: The Johnson County bean is so slender it could nearly thread a needle, the Lazy Wife bean is long enough to cross a dinner plate and the Ora Speckled has a stout, flavor-packed pod.

Peter Waskiewicz, owner of Sow True Seed, an heirloom-seed company in Asheville, is working to compile more information about local greasy varieties. "I'm trying to grow out as many strains as I can," he reports. "I'd really like to see the market develop outside of our area, and cataloging these different strains is really going to help."

Waskiewicz's goal is to isolate, identify and name certain greasys to reflect their local origins. He believes a national craze for beans bearing the name "Bethel" or "Sandy Mush" could stimulate the area's agricultural economy.

But before he can start packeting and promoting beans, he needs to research them, a task complicated by the folk traditions surrounding beans. The very habits that have made greasys so central to southern Appalachian culture could potentially threaten their status as the next big thing in heirloom vegetables, since most growers don't record where they got their beans or prevent them from mingling with other strains. Even when two gardeners are growing the very same uncontaminated bean, they might call it by a different name.

"I really haven't found my gold mine yet," Waskiewicz admits. "All I get is people saying, 'Oh, I bought it at the Farmer's Market.' There's work to be done."

Iva Lee Yelton of Mitchell County has been growing greasys since she was 8 years old. She's now 77.

"The kids told us last year, 'You're not able to make a garden,'" Yelton recalls. "I said if I'm living and able I'm going to."

Yelton's been struggling with her cabbage this season, but her corn, beets, mustard greens, tomatoes and candy roasters are thriving. A large section of her backyard garden is reserved for beans.

"My mother had a brown bean, but I never did like a color bean," Yelton says. "I never fool with them. I raise greasys and snowballs and shellies. They're not like anything around here. I raise a bunch bean too. I did raise pinktips, planted part of a row."

As Yelton's discourse illustrates, the North Carolina mountains are hospitable to a dizzying array of bean types. Beans aren't just greasy or not greasy, strung or not strung: They're also classified by their color, their length, how they grow, where they grow and when they're picked. So a greasy bean might accurately be called a cornfield cut-short (although a cornfield cut-short isn't necessarily a greasy).

Like most greasy-bean growers, Yelton doesn't sell her crop.

"I just give them to people who need them," she says. "Two of my daughters don't make no garden. Used to — every house about made gardens."

Adi Harrell, 92, once took a bushel of his greasys to the Western North Carolina Farmer's Market.

"Only beans I've ever sold," says Harrell, whose family settled in Mitchell County just before the Civil War. "I heard they were going for $35 a bushel, so I called this friend and told him. He picked a bushel and I picked a bushel and we drove to Asheville and sold them. At our age, it's more pleasure to see some neighbor's face light up with pleasure at fresh vegetables than get $35 at the market.

"We don't grow them to sell," he continues. "We grow them to divide with the grandchildren."

"Anybody who comes by and look like they're hungry," adds his wife Geneva, whose harvest-time canning sessions often run past midnight.

"All these children aren't interested in growing a garden," Harrell laughs. "They're real interested in their Daddy Adi growing a garden."

With greasy beans increasingly becoming an octogenarian avocation, the demand for greasys is beginning to outstrip supply. Since there's no commercial market to lure farmers into the greasy bean trade, bean lovers are reliant on the few producers who regularly sell their crop.

"We have no trouble selling," says Ronnie Sparks, who, with his wife Sarah, annually plants 20 145-foot bean rows just outside Bakersville. "This is the bean everybody wants. They come from Kentucky and Virginia for them. Older people want a bean, not just a hull."

Greasys began to fade from the Southern-food scene with the introduction of beans that didn't require "unzipping," in mountain parlance. Even cooks 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," Jonesborough, Tenn., greasy-bean grower Ron 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 sells his beans on Craigslist. Best lists his greasy seeds in his online catalog, selling mostly to displaced Appalachians.

"Probably 90 percent have a connection to Southern Appalachia," Best says. "If you ask a few questions, you'll find these are people from the region."

Best thinks it's unlikely greasy beans will surface on restaurant menus anytime soon. While the traditional greasy-bean preparation calls for nothing more than a stewpot, beans and a hunk of lard, he suspects that most chefs would shirk at stringing the sometimes delicate beans.

"They're expensive, and they have to be strung, and restaurants aren't going to do that," Best says.

Many chefs acknowledge the bush beans they foist upon their customers aren't much better than flavorless green swizzle sticks, but Best says they tell him there's not yet a realistic alternative.

"They tell me they'll only use beans as a garnish," Best says.

Still, ASAP hopes Asheville area restaurants proclaiming their locavore sensibilities will take time to revisit greasys.

"I think chefs are too busy to worry about side dishes," Caylor frets. "These are just humble little hillbilly beans. But if chefs knew how to do something with them, they're feisty."

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2 thoughts on “Good and greasy

  1. Sandra & Edward Moody

    We grow Moodys Greasys in Haywood County NC and sell them at the WNC Farmers Market. Great canning bean and delicious flavor fixed in your crockpot with a couple slices of bacon added. The WNC Farmers Market buyers look for the Moodys Greasy Beans for their produce stands. Always happy with this bean and are definitely repeat customers. We save our seed every year which has been handed down many through many generations

    • Margaret Williams

      Thank you for telling us about Moody’s Greasy Beans. Sounds delicious!

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