Greasy Beans: We Like Them In Spite of Their Name

Kentucky Greasy Beans at $2/pound on 8-14-10
Kentucky Greasy Beans at $2/pound on 8-14-10
Kentucky Greasy Beans at $7/pound on 9-18-10
Kentucky Greasy Beans at $7/pound on 9-18-10
Looking for a source of greasy bean seeds? Go to Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, Inc.

People who shop at the Lexington Farmers Market carry on an annual love affair with the greasy bean.  Never mind the unappealing name. Never mind its inaccuracy: not only are these smooth-skinned, non-fuzzy beans NOT greasy -- their bumpy-straight green looks, their tender, slightly chewy texture, and their umami meaty/nutty flavor should warrant them a moniker like "CheerfulPerky Happiness Beans."

In Lexington, we could just call them 'I Want Some' beans. At our markets, farmers' small stocks of greasy beans sell out early. Tracking prices also shows how demand for these beans grows as people try them and tell each other about them. In 2010, greasy beans sold in Lexington for$2/pound on August 14, and jumped to $7/pound on September 18 at one stand. I paid $4.50/pound for Bourbon County greasy beans from Garey Farms on September 18. By comparison, most other beans sell for $2 - $3/pound.

Greasy beans belong firmly in the category of heritage or heirloom beans. Though seeds are now for sale, greasy beans are still with us because families saved the seeds of their own favorite beans for generations. Appalachian know-how led to stringing these beans and hanging them to dry, turning them into "shuck" or "shucky" beans that boost protein and flavor for winter meals.

I don't know beans about beanology, but I don't have to, because Dr. Bill Best, president of the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center in Berea has dedicated decades to collecting, cultivating, and promoting heirloom beans. If you want to know more from a real expert, visit Bill Best's articles or find his book, Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia.

Most heirloom beans haveto be "strung," and must be cooked at a simmer for at least 25 minutes. My system for cooking fresh greasy beans:

  1. String and break the beans into short pieces. Remove ALL strings. Greasy beans string cleanly if you pay good attention.
  2. Wash the beans in a colander or sieve and put them in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Nearly cover with water. Add salt and other seasonings to taste. Cured, smoked pork is classic. Bacon works well. So do salt and olive oil, or salt plus a bit of a vegan stock cube. (Add to these basic seasoningsif you like.)
  3. Cook at least 25 minutes, and up to 90 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. I like greasy beans best at the early end of done, when the shells stillhave some green left, but the beans themselves become tender and a bit creamy, with no raw flavor.
  4. Serve with other great summer foods, particularly sliced tomatoes.
Kentucky dinner of Garey Farms greasy beans, slow cooked Weisenberger grits, Elmwood chicken livers, and Campsie pickled beets and pickled onions
Kentucky dinner of Garey Farms greasy beans, slow cooked Weisenberger grits, Elmwood chicken livers, and Campsie pickled beets and pickled onions

In the photo above, the greasy beans cover the 4:00–6:00 spot on my plate, keeping good company with Elmwood Stock Farm chicken livers with Campsie pickled onions, slow-cooked Weisenberger Mill Stone Ground White Grits, and Campsie pickled beets. As you can see, greasy beans cook up into a cross between a shell-out or 'shelly' bean (like cranberry beans) and a slow-cooked pod bean (like White Half Runner or McCaslan.)   The richly flavored bean seeds shrug off their pods as they cook. The tender green shells stay close by. Both the beans and their hulls offer a pleasing chew. I'm right there with all the people who consider greasy beans special.

About those strings. Some, including Kentucky food expert Ronni Lundy in her wonderful Butter Beans to Blackberries, as well as Ruth and Lisle (Mother and Dad), assert firmly that green beans that sport strings taste better. I confess to having grown and eaten a few stringless green beans, but I do agree with the hypothesis that 'strings tie flavor into green beans," at least for green beans that require the long, slow, simmering type of cooking.

So greasy beans, with their stringing time and cooking time requirements, may not fit well in your weeknight dinner plans if you struggle to make time to cook. Try them on weekends or when you have friends or eager kids around to help string and break the beans.

Another way: On any night you please, declare your right to prepare and cook true Slow Food. The stringing and snapping take a bit of time, but the repetitive hand work soothes anxious spirits far more successfully than watching the news or a "Law and Order" rerun before you start making dinner. The smells of the beans cooking lifts those newly refreshed spirits and ramps up expectations of the coming feast. The richness of the finished beans will reward your effort. You may find an increase in your own personal happiness index when you make time and space for real cooking and let less fun things go.

Try greasy beans IF you can find them. (Ahem...you'll mostly likely be able to find them if you order seeds and plant them in your garden.)  Bill Best says, "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." Since he is the expert, Bill gets the final word on greasy beans, from his catalog description:

Greasy beans have been grown in the Southern Appalachians for many generations and are especially prevalent in parts of Southeastern Kentucky and Western North Carolina. Greasy beans do not have the tight knit fuzz like that on the hulls of other beans and appear shiny instead. They look "greasy." People who know them usually think they are the best of all beans [emphasis added] and they routinely cost several times more than commercial beans at markets. They are so prevalent in some communities that the term greasy has been dropped since almost all beans grown in particular areas are greasy beans.