Posted by: ktzefr | January 7, 2011

From Shuck Beans to Haricots Verts…

A good "mess" of green beans.

Growing up in the hills of eastern Kentucky, I ate chicken and dumplings, pinto beans and cornbread, and country-cured, salted-to-death ham with sweet potatoes swimming in melted marshmallows and cinnamon candies.  It was all good, but I was looking for something (in food and in life) that was a bit more mysterious, out of the ordinary…foreign.  The first “exotic” meal I ever cooked was a dish called “Polynesian sweet and sour pork” from a recipe in a Ladies Home Journal magazine.  In college I subscribed to Time and Ladies Home Journal.  I kept up with the news and learned how to cook.

The first time I made Italian spaghetti sauce I mixed the ingredients in a blender and left out the basil.  I had no idea what basil was and figured a couple of tablespoons of anything, no matter how tasty, couldn’t make a difference.  It did.  Once I tasted fresh basil, I was hooked.  I started growing it, making pesto in the blender, and stuffing the aromatic leaves into white vinegar.  A little basil makes a big difference, as do many other herbs and spices and seasonings. Isn’t the big deal always found in the small details?

In an old house with an oven that chose to perform properly only when it saw fit to do so, I experimented with duck a l’orange.  The house had belonged to my friend’s departed grandma, and the family had split it into two apartments, which they rented to college students.  Our side inherited the large foyer and long hallway that ran alongside the rooms.  The house was not lacking in character and even held a hint of spookiness.  The living room had a fireplace that tilted to one side and an old piano with several missing keys.  There was a bedroom, a kitchen, and a dining room but no closets.  The original house had only one bathroom, so they made a new bath for the other tenants and incorporated the old bath into our dining area.  The “window” that must have originally had a nice view of the side yard, opened directly into the kitchen.  All one needed to do was part the curtains to look, or reach, through the window — from either direction.  This got loads of use at parties.

Kentucky ducks out for a stroll.

Anyway, back to the duck.  I spent all day cooking, mixing the sauce, and making spring rolls by hand for a group of friends.  We set up tables — a card table, end tables, etc. — in the foyer in front of the only source of heat in our side of the house.  A large gas contraption blew hot air in one direction, which was straight toward the front door where most of it escaped through the cracks.  Our dining set-up in the old foyer that night looked like a down-on-its-luck cafe.  But the duck was excellent!

The local A&P store didn’t normally sell ducks, so I’d had to ask the men at the meat counter to place a special order.  They didn’t recall ever selling duck, they said.  (“Why would anyone want to pay that price for a bird that didn’t have much meat on it when you could get a perfectly plump hen for a fraction of the cost?”)  Every time I went to the store the men reminded me that they were stuck with ducks.  They’d had to order a minimum number of birds and no one else in town wanted to buy one.   In a town full of hunters, who cooked venison and wild turkey and the occasional squirrel, it seemed that no one knew how to cook a duck.  Except me.  I felt guilty and ended up buying more ducks and perfecting the French recipe over the next few weeks.

Sometimes, when I cooked dinner at home for family they got frustrated.  It took too long.  Who waits for a sauce to cook all afternoon when you can make gravy in ten minutes?  Yet they let the green beans cook for hours with a ham bone because that was the “only proper way” to cook beans.

Still, I was way too curious about what the rest of the world ate for dinner to stop experimenting.   Ahhh…curiosity.  I know it killed the cat and was responsible for Pandora opening that box and letting out all the bad stuff, but aside from this, I don’t think there is any trait capable of producing more magic.

Imagine a world without curiosity.  No inventions, no progress, nothing new…no cellphones, television, or botox.  No “WOW” moments?  Would there be shuck beans?  Or haricots verts?

La Salade de Haricots Verts

When I was growing up in Kentucky we did bean stringing at the end of summer using large needles threaded with thick twine.  We’d slip the needle through one bean at a time until we had a long string of beans that would hang in the smokehouse until winter.  By then the beans were dry and shriveled and they rattled like a bunch of corn shucks when you pulled them off to cook.  They had to soak for hours, usually overnight, before cooking all day with a ham hock or a chunk of salt pork.  Shuck beans are GOOD but hard to describe; they do not taste like anything else in the world.

After we left home, my mom didn’t feel like stringing bushels of beans alone, so she lined the back window of the car with newspapers, scattered the beans on the papers, and parked the car where the window full of beans would get the longest, most direct exposure to the sun.  At Christmas time she always brought shuck beans to D.C. in her suitcase.  I imagine a TSA agent today sitting at a monitor in the airport and seeing a paper bag full of shuck beans tucked amongst the underwear and wondering what he’d discovered.  An old lady with a bag of bullets?

In any case, there are wonderful bean recipes in Julia Child’s collections or those of Paul Bocuse or Michel Roux, and there are tasty tidbits as well in the several little spiral-bound cookbooks I have that were produced by various women’s groups in Kentucky and points south.  For me life’s not about doing the same thing the same way all the time.  Nor is it about tossing out, exchanging, or substituting one way for another.  It’s about accumulating (I’m a terrible pack rat, by the way).  It’s about keeping the good stuff but always pressing ahead, always looking to add on…

Double click to enlarge and take a peek at a few of my favorite cookbooks; click again if you can't read the spine.

Click on the beans for the recipes: Shuck Beans and Haricots Verts.   (The shuck bean recipe by Lorene Potter from Ashcamp, Kentucky appeared in Southern Living magazine in 2005.)  (The haricots verts is Emeril Lagasse’s bacon and beans Thanksgiving recipe — not the authentic way of cooking these beans, but tasty; also, I like to add a can of stewed tomatoes to this recipe, but then it veers entirely away from being French and goes Middle Eastern/Mediterranean, but who cares…so long as it’s good!)



  1. Being a lover of beans, I need to know…where can I buy shuck beans, or do I need to get stringing??( I’m crafty, but this may be more than I can take on)

    • I don’t know of any place, even in Kentucky, that sells shuck beans. People dry their own beans for the winter. It’s really easy to do. All you need is a large needle and a ball of twine, pierce each bean (choose mature, full beans) in the middle and slide along the twine, then hang the string of beans somewhere cool and dry. It takes a few months for the beans to dry completely, turn brown, and shrivel. (Or, you can spread beans on newspaper in the sun for as long as it takes to dry. This, of course, has to be done in summer and you have to make sure they don’t get accidentally left out in the rain.)

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