Few aspects of Southern country cookery are more maligned and misunderstood than the issue of how long to cook vegetables, such as fresh snap beans. Cynics raise a great hue and cry that green beans should be only teased with cooking, leaving them as firm and bright as an emerald.
But unless one is dealing only with those prissy stringless beans the thickness of dental floss, there is nothing smart about that prevailing wisdom. We Appalachian cooks know better. We know beans.
The prized snap beans where I'm from – the majestic Blue Ridge province of the Southern Appalachian Mountains – are some sort of sturdy pole beans with thick, tough pods and ropey strings running down the sides, encasing a row of fully formed beans. These legumes weren't intended to be a green vegetable; they were a vital source of protein and fiber, grown for the nutritious beans inside, not necessarily the hulls that house them. Full, mature beans require a low and slow simmer to turn tender and become fully delicious. "You are washing away their nutrients!" counter the skeptics. Fret not: Proper cooking makes those nutrients available and digestible. We don't pour off their delicious pot likker, we sop every last drop. Moreover, our judicious use of smoked pork seasoning ensures we absorb the fat-soluble vitamins.
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Each variety of bean requires (and deserves) the appropriate approach. When you know your bean, you know your cooking method. If a bean pod is delicate and tender enough to eat raw, it needs quick, gentle cooking, and should be served firm. If a bean pod is leathery and ropey, it needs long, slow cooking, and should be served tender. Subjecting the newer, hybridized string-less varieties to long cooking would dissolve them into a tasteless mess resembling pond scum. Giving old-fashioned string beans only a quick steam would leave them so tough that a ruminant would give up. It's the same rationale behind searing steaks versus braising short ribs.
To connoisseurs of heirloom beans, especially those of us who were raised on them, the strings on beans are a sign of deep, satisfying flavor, and the ritual of stringing and snapping those beans is yoga for our souls. Wherever two or more of us bean eaters are gathered, we reminisce about how fresh beans were a mainstay of our summer meals, and of the work it took to prepare the prodigious amounts we grew in our gardens and bought at our farmsteads. We speak of circling up our lawn chairs after supper in the shank of a summer evening as the humid air relented a bit. We sat alongside our grandparents and cousins with unfolded sections of the newspaper spread like drop cloths at our feet to catch the curls of pulled strings and the occasional spent hull when a pod was so full that it burst when bent.
Our moves were almost autonomic: Pick up a bean from the full bucket on one side, string it, snap it into bite-sized lengths, and drop the pieces into a clean dish pan on our other side. Over and over and over while the crickets chirped, the lightening bugs sparkled their semaphore, and our conversation hummed along. You see, when we children of the Blue Ridge, no matter how far off the mountain we might have wandered, crave a pot of meltingly tender and perfectly seasoned beans, we're not only hungry, we're homesick. It's not that we won't eat your flimsy, crunchy, stringless haricot verts; we just don't consider them to be beans.
So give us our Half-Runners, our Greasy Cut Shorts, our Pink Tips, and Rattlesnake Pole — for we are masters of their ways. And ours.