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Flavor 14: Greasy Beans

March 27, 2015
BY CARLA SEIDL

Last December, a cotton sack arrived at the headquarters of Sow True Seed, a small Asheville-based seed company selling open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. It was tied with cotton twine, and sported a piece of brown paper that read: "Glenwood Greaseys. Greasey Cut Short Bean Seeds. Product of Cannery Springs Farm, a Century farm in the village of Glenwood, County McDowell, NC, USA."

Most seeds arriving at Sow True Seed come in boxes, so the seed packers sensed that this was something special. "It was beautiful," says Sow True Seed employee and resident food expert Sarah Wickers. "There was something about it that we all were drawn to." Everyone in the office gathered round and dug their hands into the seeds.

Greasy beans are a southern Appalachian specialty, little or unknown outside of this area. They're called greasy not because of their fat content, but their complexion. Examine most beans up close and you'll notice a fine layer of fuzz on the outside. Greasy beans, in contrast, are hairless and waxy. "Silky," says Wickers. "Gorgeous."

And then there's their taste. "There's something about them that's hard to describe until you have them," says Wickers, a self-described bean fan. "The way that they taste when you eat them is just beautiful."

The traditional way to cook greasy beans is with fatback or other meat, and perhaps onions and garlic. The greasy being a harder bean, it needs to be cooked much longer than other beans. Prepared fresh, it's not steamed like green beans, but boiled for at least an hour stovetop.

According to Sow True Seed founder and owner Carol Koury, greasy beans have been grown in these mountains probably for as long as there have been whites in Appalachia. In olden times, they provided an important source of protein in the winter, when the hunting wasn't so good. Koury describes the taste of greasy beans, cooked in their pods in the summer, as sweet and creamy. In the winter, she says, you can use the shelled dry bean as you would any bean.

Different varieties of greasy beans have been passed down through families, and with interesting names like the Lazy Wife bean. In addition to that and the Glenwood Cut Short, Sow True Seed also carries WNC Market and Red Striped varieties.

As far as Koury knows, Sow True Seed is the only company to offer greasy beans in western North Carolina. Her company, started in 2009, sells only open-pollinated seeds and specializes as much as possible in local heirlooms, like wax beans that come from and are named after the Cherokee. "What we want and what we try for," says Koury, "are seeds that are well-adapted to southern Appalachia." Some popular sellers are from the Brassica family like collards and mustard greens.

But, she explains, most gardeners want things that didn't originally come from this area. Tomatoes, for instance, came from Mexico and Ecuador. The black eyed pea that is most associated with the South is actually the California variety. In fact, most of the seed for the vegetables that Americans eat and grow in our gardens is grown in parts of western states like Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, where the climate is drier.

Most gardeners, says Koury, plant things that they are used to and like to eat. "And that," she says, "can be a real challenge, because in the United States, we expect any food to be available at any time, and all the time."

Koury points to the fact that people in the U.S. spend a lower percentage of their income on food than residents of any other nation. In other words, Americans expect their food to be cheap. "We flock to the places that give us the cheapest food, even though that food might be very costly in other ways. Both in terms of health and in terms of how far it came from," says Koury. "And I would like to say that you get what you pay for."

As a child, Koury spent summers with a grandmother who'd fled northern Europe because of famine. On a small farm in New Hampshire, her grandmother grew all of the food they ate year-round. Koury remembers picking potato bugs, carrying water from the well, chasing raccoons, and helping with weeding. "I've been gardening since I can remember," she says. "I am very aware of where food comes from."

Koury thinks people need to take their food more seriously than they do. She is very concerned about GMOs and the way that the world's seed is increasingly controlled by large chemical and pharmaceutical companies.

At the same time, she has concerns about free seed libraries, which she thinks devalue seed. "It takes a lot of trouble to grow seed," she explains. First, you have to grow the produce. Beans are not so hard, but other things, like squash, peppers, or tomatoes, take a lot more energy.

Koury hopes that more and more people will learn how to save their seed and reclaim the lost tradition of being self-sufficient food growers. She would like to see seed exchanges, libraries, and swaps that involve true exchange. Essentially, says Koury, "I want us to know more about where our food comes from. And for people to understand that seed equals food. That that's where it begins."