It was the early morning of a late summer day and I was sitting in an old ladder back chair in Aunt Bett's back yard waiting for Ninna and Aunt Bett to join me with a bushel basket full of white half runners that had been picked the evening before. The old chair and two others just like it were sitting in the shade of a silver maple tree and I could hear the leaves whispering to each other in the light breeze that ran through the hollow. The chairs sat in a circle and in the middle of the circle was an empty metal pan. Between the two empty chairs there was an empty metal bucket. I knew the curly strings from the beans would go in the bucket, but the pan in the middle would hold the beans that the curly strings had been pulled from. The beans in the pan, still in their pods, were my responsibility. I would poke the needle right through the middle of the whole beanpod.

I was only seven going on eight, but I was excited because this was the first year they let me string the beans on the thread. I had practiced my embroidery stitches all winter long so I knew how to use a needle. I had also learned to quilt but I was not very good at making the same straight stitch that hand quilting required over and over again. And somehow my fingers always seemed to be stained from blue dyes or yellow walnut hulls or just the dirt that collected on the fingers of little girls who played outside in any weather; so my sewing was pretty restricted. I didn't mind, because that task was boring, but the beans....well, that was a whole different activity. I could hardly sit still waiting for them to carry in the bushel basket of white half runners.

They told me that a basket full of beans weighed about 30 pounds, and I didn't weigh much more than that, so I wasn't allowed to help carry it. I think I could have if they had let me try, but I didn't argue. They came with the basket between them, each holding on to one of the wire handles. They placed it between the empty chairs and slightly behind the empty bucket that would hold the green curly strings, then each sat down in an empty chair. They spread their aprons over their knees and began to put hands full of half runners into piles on their aprons, then they both started to snap the ends off at about the same time.Image

I wore my own white apron, and my miniature bonnet just like theirs, so I spread my apron, too, because as soon as that pan was half full of beans, I could begin my task. The long needle was already threaded and I had a knot in the bottom of the double length of thread. I couldn't sit still. "Ninna, what kinda beans is them, and I'm sposed to poke the needle in the middle between the beans, cause I ain't sposed to poke the bean, is that right, Ninna? And what happens iffen I poke the bean, and what happens if the bean breaks and I think this thread is too long cause it's longer than me, and it's draggin' in the dirt, and do you think I can start now?"

Well, I was never known for my patience nor my silence, and I was by this time certainly over any fear I ever had of Aunt Bett and her asphidity bag, and truly wanted to get started on my important job. Finally the pan was half full and I started stringing one bean at a time on my long doubled thread. I was pretty quiet as long as I had something to occupy my hands, so as I started my important job, Ninna and Aunt Bett started telling their tales, most of which included gossip, and I listened while I worked. I learned a lot that way.

Shucky beans refers to an old way of preserving beans that is very closely associated with the Appalachian region, and "I'll tell you rite now, you ain't lived till you've had some shucky beans and cornbread". The green beans were preserved by stringing them on a length of twine and then hanging them in an attic or from the rafters of a covered back porch, to dry in the heat of late summer and early fall. Aunt Bett's and our back porches had nails attached to the rafters; they were about 2 feet apart and stuck out from the wood enough so that the twine at the top of the string of beans could be attached to one nail, then the end of the string could be attached to the next one. It looked just like Christmas garlands strung across the rafters of our porches. The drying process usually took several weeks. We used white half runners, a type of bean that had a fresh tender pod and fully formed beans. That was important, because not all pods will remain tender while large beans develop. If the pod is tough while green, it will be even tougher when it dries, and too tough to eat when it is cooked. The beans were strung on heavy white cotton thread, as long as needed, to hold enough beans for a family meal. I can't remember how long the thread was, I just remember that my beans touched the dry dust of the ground, and I worried about possibly eating dirt when they were cooked. (It wasn't like I hadn't eaten dirt before, but still.....) I shouldn't have worried because the two little old ladies had that small problem covered as well.

After the beans were dried, they were left on the string, crinkly crunchy things they were, and were placed on screens that were across the rafters on the floor of the attic. Ninna took half and Aunt Bett took half, because the beans came from both gardens and because we always did several bushel baskets full in late summer. Both houses had attics that were very dry even in rainy weather. As a matter of fact, the closet in my upstairs bedroom led directly into the attic of our house. It stayed pretty warm too, and sometimes Ninna hung her shucky beans from the rafters on the ceiling instead of placing them on the floor. It was pretty scary to roam around from board to board in the dark attic, running into dried beans hanging from the ceiling, I could scare myself half to death pretending they were the dry brittle bones of a skeleton. It didn't take much to entertain me.

When the weather turned cold, and the days grew short, an evening meal of shucky beans and cornbread with homemade butter was a real treat. The dried beans were easily removed when the string was cut, and then they were washed in a big pan of cold water. I later learned that they were not washed at anytime during the drying process because the ladies didn't want moisture to create mold on the beans. They would be ruined if that happened. I remember well the precooking process: wash, rinse, wash, rinse, wash, rinse. And they also carefully "looked" them to make sure there were no bugs, one pod at a time. The beans were then placed in a large iron cook pot and covered in water, a lid was put in place and they were left to soak overnight.

The next morning, the beans were rinsed again, then covered with cold water and set on the stove to simmer for a couple of hours. Somewhere during that first hour, a big chunk of salted fat back or perhaps a ham hock, or even a hank of country ham was placed in the simmering beans. They continued to cook slowly in the big black pot filling the room with their aroma throughout the long day. Along about thirty minutes before supper time, Ninna would bring out a big bowl of homemade butter cold from the icebox. I loved the beans, but hated the pork, so it took me awhile to make sure there was no sign of meat in my beans, by that time the butter had melted between my layers of hot cornbread and I was all ready to enjoy my supper. I also made sure there was no dirt and no bugs. Then I made sure everybody at the supper table knew I helped string those beans onto the thread. I was so proud because I had helped feed my family through the cold winter months. It didn't matter that my dad and mom both worked and we always had plenty of food, what mattered was that I had planted the seeds, picked the beans, and then strung them one by one on the long cotton twine. Well, that's the way I saw the situation.Image

Here is the recipe that Ninna and Aunt Bett used for shucky beans:

enuff dried white half runners for family. clean.

covered in water.

bring to boil then simmer on back burner for 1 hour.

add chunk of salt fat back (thick salted bacon) .

simmer till suppertime and eat with hot cornbread and butter.

White half runners, Phaseolus vulgaris, were the beans my family used for drying. They had tender pods and very fleshy beans. They are a bit hard to find these days, and are considered heirloom seeds but if you are really fortunate they can usually be found in the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center in Berea, KY, a non profit organization started by Bill Best and continued by his family. {1}

It is interesting, maybe a little sad, to think of traditions that are no longer with us. I learned as much listening to Aunt Bett and Ninna tell their tall tales while I was threading those beans on a long white string, as I did when I learned to embroider and quilt. I gained as much practical knowledge from their weight gestimates, their tip of nose to end of finger yardage measurements, and their pinches of this and tads of that recipes, as I did in most of my math classes in college. I use that knowledge more often, too.

I haven't had shucky beans in a very long time. But now that I think about it, if I started by planting white half runners next spring, by this time next year I could have strings of them hanging from the rafters in my attic.

Information from this article came from family writings.


Photos are from Plant Files, with special appreciation to farmerdill and Big_Red for the use of their photos.