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One of the Three Sisters: Slow Cooked Green Beans

There is a romanticized notion that every Southerner sat on their grandmother’s front porch and broke beans. I suppose there is some truth to this. I am also sure one of my 17 cousins or one of my siblings may have had that experience with Maw (my paternal grandmother), but as one of the youngest of her grandchildren, it was not one I shared. I did, however, break beans with my mother. We would sometimes sit on our covered patio on a hot summer day while watching the cool water move in the pool and break beans. She would talk about breaking beans that filled a washtub with her own grandmother.  For every one of us who broke beans, I am sure there are plenty who never had that iconic experience, and that is a shame.  

Green beans are part of the trio known as the Three Sisters by the First People who lived on the land, we now call America. The three sisters are a companion planting method that dates at least 3000 years. If you have ever grown a garden, you will understand from a practical standpoint, this system of companion planting is immensely practical. The corn in the system serves as a trellis. Beans wrap their tendrils and climb. What is better than a cornstalk? Beans provide a source of nitrogen for the soil, a needed component of growth. The large leaves and spreading nature of the squash plant offer heat protection for the bottoms of the other plants, helps to prevent weed spread and assists in erosion control.  

A Saturday haul from the local farmer’s market. Ready to be strung and snapped!

The three sisters were not only practical but are symbols of the spiritual aspects of food and agriculture and the sacredness of the gift of the harvest. “To the Iroquois people, corn, beans, and squash are the Three Sisters, the physical and spiritual sustainers of life. These life-supporting plants were given to the people when all three miraculously sprouted from the body of Sky Woman's daughter, granting the gift of agriculture to the Iroquois nations.” [Carnegie Museum of Natural History. (2018). The Three Sisters: Sustainers of life.]  

Most people have heard of the Three Sisters. Gardeners all over the nation are familiar with companion planting. But where did green beans originate? How did they find their way here? The study of food origins is a complex one and reading through the many journal articles and book excepts regarding what we know as a green bean whose Latin name is Phaseolus vulgaris is a fascinating journey itself. Who knew food origins could be so hotly debated? For many years it was believed the bean originated in Mesoamerica. In 1941, 

botanist Arturo Burkhart reported wild beans spontaneously grew in Argentina thousands of years ago. Additionally, archeologists were able to date primitive bean remains in pre-ceramic containers dating 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. 

Like many of the other foods found in the American South, beans were carried here by the migratory nature of indigenous peoples that inhabited the lands. We know early humans crossed the Bering land bridge, made their way down the west coast and traveled as far down as South America. Many made their way back to Mesoamerica and then north again into what is known as Texas and dispersed all over North America. In addition, Spaniards extracted foods and seeds from the areas they conquered and transported those items to other areas which they colonized, such as the area of St. Augustine, Florida. The combination of two cultures moving foods is how we have many items are found on our tables.  

Though not a Southern cash crop like cotton, tobacco, or even peaches, commercially grown green beans were often grown and harvested by slaves and later freed black men and woman and by share croppers.

Green beans feature prominently in Appalachian culture. That may be one reason so many of us in the South eat them. My own family spent approximately three hundred years in the area bordering North Carolina and Tennessee prior to migrating to Middle Tennessee. The cooking of green beans developed due to two things – the nature of the green bean itself and needing to use all parts of the animals they slaughtered for food. Many of today’s green beans, such as my favorite Blue Lake variety, are stringless. However, as a rule, green beans are often tough and certainly stringy. They needed to be cooked for several hours to be easily eaten and simmering them with bits of the pig that may not be used in other ways added a delicious fat to the beans as well.  

Green beans are often found in on the Croy dinner table. If they are cooked on a Sunday, they are cooked low and slow on the stove for three hours, the scent of the smoked bacon fat combined with the earthy scent of the beans wafting through the air. They are more often than not from a can, though during the summer we eat fresh beans from the local farmer’s market. During the week, in a  pinch, I will saute fresh green beans in garlic and sesame oil to accompany on the many Asian dishes we eat. Our daughter was adopted from China and we not only prepare Southern foods, but eat Chinese food as well. Green beans figure prominently in other cuisines as well. That is a recipe for another book! If you have not cooked Southern beans, below is my easy recipe that produces delicious results.


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