'Appalachian umami': Leather Britches, a tradition with surprising roots
Some call them Leather Britches. Others, like the Kentucky-born food historian and Appalachian advocate Ronni Lundy, grew up calling them Shuck Beans.
If you haven't spent any time in Appalachia, you may not have heard them called by either name, but Lundy, whose "Victuals" cookbook explores that and other traditions of the Appalachian table, believes you should.
Leather britches, so named after their resemblance to leather pants that had been soaked and hastily dried, are beans threaded together and hung up to dehydrate in the pod, giving them a flavor that verges on meatiness.
Traditionally, Appalachian cooks would simmer the dried pods with white bacon, or fatty "streak of lean," should the larder be so well-stocked. With patience, the dried pods slump into umami-rich tenderness as they cook, releasing the now flavorful beans within.
"They become this silky delivery system for the fat and seasoning, and there's some kind of delicate thing in there," Lundy said. "It's just intoxicating to eat them — the flavor is not like another bean dish that I know of because of what happens with the shell when it dries and then cooks — it really is a unique flavor."
But the birth of these beans was anything but romantic. They evolved as a way to survive in a hardscrabble place where managing winter took planning and preservation.
Canning, a relatively new phenomenon, wouldn't become commonplace until the decades following the Civil War. Before that, drying was key, but it wasn't exclusive to Appalachia.
Lundy learned that firsthand when she visited the reconstructed Appalachian settlements at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia. Wandering into the kitchen of a typical German home, Lundy spied drying apple rings and threaded bean pods hanging by a chimney.
Rosa, the German-born woman presiding over the exhibit, described growing up on a similar dish her family adapted from a 14th-century method.
What Rosa's family called Getrocknete Bohnen could have been the forebear of Leather Britches, carried to the region by German migrants, Lundy said.
That fits in with the theme of "Victuals," which paints Appalachia as the culturally rich region outsiders rarely see. "There are much more diverse cultural influences in Appalachian foodways that indicate that those who settled or came here are far more diverse," Lundy said.
With Appalachian food increasingly in the spotlight, those roots are coming to light. And so are leather britches.
Among their champions is Husk founder Sean Brock, who's also opening Audrey in Nashville, Tennessee. So is Asheville, North Carolina's Ashleigh Shanti, who plans to open Good Hot Fish in the spring.
Both chefs recently cooked a dinner together in Nashville honoring the traditional Native American three sisters: corn, beans and squash. On the menu: leather britches with shaved truffles and porcini mushrooms. "I'm pretty sure no one's ever done that before," Shanti said.
Shanti, whose maternal great-aunt Hattie Mae lived in the Appalachian town of Hillsville, Virginia, used to string up greasy beans — a shiny-podded heirloom snap bean — and hang them like ristras from the porch.
It wasn't until the chef moved to Asheville, where she dove into researching Appalachian foodways, that she learned the name of those strings of beans.
"I read about the leather britches and thought 'Oh, I know what that is. That's what's hanging out on the porch or over the woodstove,'" Shanti said, adding that Hattie Mae always had food drying somewhere. "I'll always remember pulling up to the house and being like, 'What's hanging off the porch today,'" Shanti laughed.
Chefs like Shanti say they revere those strange-looking beans for the unique meatiness the drying vegetal pods lend them.
That distinct flavor is of the reasons Lundy thinks they've become such an enduring symbol of Appalachian comfort.
"In the 1970s, the first time I lived in New Mexico, my aunt sent me a care package with cute things, a bag of Oreo cookies and a bag of shuck beans, because they were worried I wouldn't have any," Lundy recalled.
Few people who make them still do so out of necessity, Lundy suggested. For one, they're increasingly hard to source. "But the reason to continue to do it is that they taste so good, with an incredibly satisfying flavor," Lundy said.
Born out of necessity and resilience, the beans that come into a meaty tenderness with a slow and patient hand are an apt symbol of a long-overlooked region slowly coming into its own.
"They taste in a way that I personally call 'Appalachian umami,'" Lundy said.