Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Cutshort Bean

You've probably never heard of it, but you've heard of dry beans and green beans. Well, the cutshort, or “greasy” bean, is like a cross between the two. It used to be grown extensively in the South, but now it is less known. The cutshort is a type of bean that is unique in its ability to maintain a tender hull far into its development. As such, it can be harvested well after its seeds have swelled to the size of dry beans, and its hull will remain tender long after a green bean's hull would have become tough and inedible. Green beans also have very little nutritional value or flavor compared to cutshorts.
It's funny because the cutshort is kind of the equivalent of the sugar snap pea, a relatively new and quickly adopted version of the shelling pea that features an edible pod. The sugar snap pea made it so you didn't have to spend so much time shelling your garden peas to be able to enjoy them. Of course, slightly different from the cutshort, the snap pea became much more of a raw finger food perfect for snacking, while the cutshort is simply a richer, and faster cooking version of the dry bean.
Cutshorts are ideally harvested when the seeds inside the pod have swelled to a very large size and the hulls are beginning to pale. Unlike dry beans, but like green beans, they are eaten fresh (unless you string them up for Leather Breeches, which I'll get to) The pods do have tough strings along the seams, but with a little effort you can remove the strings and everything you have left is perfectly edible. This makes for a much bulkier harvest than dry or green beans, and because the seeds inside are so much more developed, a pot of cutshorts is far more nutritious and filling than a pot of green beans. Green beans are fine for a side dish, but cutshorts make a respectable main course. The final product ends up tasting a lot like a pot of green beans and dry beans combined, with the hulls adding a satisfying mouth feel to the dish.

I see the green bean as representative of our modern era of abundant fossil fuel. Yeah, somehow everything relates to fossil fuel. Yet it makes sense. In the old days, a watery and nutritionally lacking food like the green bean would have been a waste of space in a garden or on a farm. When people are hard up for nutrients, they aren't going to grow something as delicate as the green bean when they could have something as wholesome as the cutshort or the dry bean. I've never been a big fan of the green bean and find it hard to find a use for when I've grown small amounts of it in the past. It has its place, and it does have flavor when picked fresh from the garden (I really don't know how people can eat the canned version in the grocery store), but I'd rather grow something that will fill me up.

A few years ago I got seeds of a variety called Tennessee Cutshort (which is kind of like calling a bean variety “bean” since so many cutshorts are from Tennessee) from the Seed Savers Exchange Annual Conference. These are the ones in the photos. I had been growing a variety called Aunt Nora's Half Runner that fit the description of a cutshort in having seeds so tightly packed in their hulls that they flattened on the sides that were touching (and where the name cutshort comes from). I tried to grow out my seed of this variety this year, but it had been too long since I grew it, and all the seed had died. I never got to see if it was a true tender-podded cutshort because when I was growing it in the past, I didn't know about the virtues of the cutshort bean. The Tennessee variety doesn't have the crowded hull, but it definitely has the tender hull. It may not even technically be a cutshort for that reason and may be a greasy bean, which is another name for tender-hulled beans. It got the name because the beans have fewer fine hairs on them than most beans and look oily when cooked up.

After destringing and snapping into more bite sized pieces

Cutshorts are pole beans and they need to be trellised or planted with corn or sorghum, but being pole beans, they are very prolific, and far more productive than bush beans for the amount of garden space they require. Being so productive, cutshorts could be overwhelming for fresh eating, so southerners would dehydrate the beans by stringing them and hanging them up to dry. Then they could eat the beans, hulls and all, throughout the winter.

 I've found several references to Leather Britches or Leather Breeches, the term for the dried beans, online and even a Youtube video. I don't think they were using cutshorts in the video as was traditional, but regular green beans. They did mention in the video that the best ones to use are half runners, which is confirmed in my research. Like the variety I spoke of earlier, Aunt Nora's half runner, which was a cutshort, there may be crossover among the cutshort, the greasy bean, and the half runner. Most of what I see being used online for leather britches appears to be simply dehydrated green beans of the kind most people know. I suspect the people talking about leather britches on their blogs didn't know that their grandma who taught them about drying garden beans probably used cutshorts. Or maybe their grandma did use regular green beans and her grandma used cutshots. It's mentioned in one source that southern settlers learned the practice of drying beans from their Native American neighbors, which would make sense since they got the beans themselves from the Indians.


A big plate o' cutshorts
I cooked up my first pot of cutshorts the other day, anxious to see how they tasted. The destringing took a while but I ended up with a huge pot of beans, most of which I canned in pint jars for instant meals in winter. I added water, tomatoes, epazote, salt, and a part of a hamhock to the pot and boiled it for 20-30 minutes. I'm sure onions and garlic would have been really good in it too, but it turned out fine the way I made it.

I want to try out some of the Leather Britches, just to see how it works. I can imagine the product being vastly different using cutshorts instead of regular green beans.

If you'd like to get some cutshorts to grow in your garden, visit the Sustainable Mountain AgricultureCenter, Inc. website, where you can choose to order from a large variety of cutshorts.

Leather britches just after stringing them up

No comments: