Mountain beans: gift of ancient heroes

Larry Webster
Larry Webster

There are those who don’t know beans. Some of those who do are called ethnobotanists, who say that the Appalachian mountains are the most biologically diverse place on the planet.

They report that there are over 500 identified varieties of heirloom green beans in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, where I have been privileged to beanery for several decades, and where, if it ever stops raining, the bean cult will resume its ancient craft.

We are not talking about pinto beans now. That is the official name. Where I was raised on them, we called them dried beans. Here in the uplands they are called soup beans, and are served with cornbread.

The mountains have some of the worst cornbread imaginable. You can tell how large a family a mountain cook was in by how thick her pone is, and as we all know, too thick is not a good thing.

Soup beans, with the mandatory fried potatoes, have been for nearly a century the staple food of everybody I know, the one thing we not only depended on, but looked forward to. Since Dan Quayle got in trouble for misspelling the plural of “potato,” I have been nervous and uncertain when writing that word. Fried potatoes are good for two reasons. Most of all, because they are fried, and secondly, because they are potatoes.

But back to the kettle. The most interesting thing about pinto beans is that everybody I know has always depended on them to survive. I would never think of marrying somebody whose family did not eat soup beans every day. But the thing is, I have never met the first person who knows where they come from.

I have pondered from time to time on the idea that whole generations have been kept from starvation by a food product that they had no idea where it comes from. Nowadays some smart aleck who stays on the Internet and has much information/little wisdom will flood my steam-powered computer with the answer about where they grow pintos.

But today we are talking old beans, local beans, cultivated and perfected by several generations of wrinkled old women wearing bonnets and singing ballads about the death of Queen Jane to themselves while they hoed. Or sweaty old men who squat at the end of a row and try to miss the cross of their galluses when they poop.

These ancient heroes have, for perhaps scores of years, perfected the half runner, or the cut short, or the pink tip greasy or the goose bean — all of which are being kept alive by modern heroes like Bill Best of Berea, who ranks with Wendell Berry of Port Royal as the most sensible person in Kentucky.

I didn’t know Maw Williams from Logan County, W.Va., until Frank Barnett of Georgetown introduced me to her goose beans along with his cut shorts. By their beans shall ye know them.

I didn’t know Josephine Jackson or Bill Stumbo, but when I slice a Vidalia onion (the greatest new invention since Saran Wrap) and sit down to a mess of Bill Stumbo half runners, I feel kinship with him and admiration for him, and dare to think that the mountain people might survive despite Monsanto and cheap electricity.

James Branscome, longtime advocate for Appalachia, proposed in last week’s paper that government and coal-company land be made available to the young so that they can farm and live honorably into the future.

But Branscome is far too sensible to be listened to by anybody that counts. We are not at all sure which side he is on in the “war on coal.”

Reach Larry Webster, a Pikeville attorney, at websterlawrencer@bellsouth.net.