Cooking Leather Britches Beans

stringing beans for drying
Mae Bongalis strings beans for drying. They will become leather britches.

Electricity didn’t reach most parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains until the 1930s. No electricity meant no modern conveniences for food storage, such as refrigerators and freezers. So until a couple of generations ago, food was preserved the old-fashioned way: drying and canning.

Drying fruits and vegetables didn’t require canning jars, and drying was a lot less work than canning. Green beans (“string beans”) were often dried by sewing them together and hanging them up to dry. The end product was then called “leather britches.” The dried beans maintained their nutritional value and flavor and were quite tasty when cooked.

Leather Britches were popular enough to become the subject of an old-timey fiddle-banjo tune of the same name. Here’s the tune, played by Eddie Bond (fiddle), a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship winner, and Marsha Todd, one of the area’s most popular banjo players.

Eddie Bond and Marsha Todd Performing the tune “leather Britches” at the Galax Old Fiddler’s convention

Here’s a Recipe for Old-fashioned Leather Britches Beans.

Wash and drain a batch of “snappy” green beans, cut off the stems and strings. With a darning needle and heavy thread (kite string works nicely), stick the needle through the middle/side of the beans (not down the center), wrap the string around the bean once, and tie a quick knot in the string to keep the bean from coming off or sliding down the string. Continue to string all the beans (I wonder if this is how they became known as “string beans”). Space the beans about ¼” apart to allow room for air circulation.

Hang the strings in a clean, dry, well-ventilated place. As they dry, they will turn greenish-gray and shrivel.

leather britches string beans
Leather britches string beans hung up to dry.

To cook them the following winter, cover them with water and soak them overnight to reconstitute. Drain the soaking water and put the beans in new water to boil. Parboil on medium-low heat for half an hour. Drain them again. Then simmer them in a pot with water and a ham hock or salt pork. Cook until tender. Serve with cornbread.

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