The time-honored saying of “Kissing don’t last, cookery do!” seems to characterize our memories of the old ways of cooking in the South and Appalachia.
We lived by the principle “waste makes want” and learned to “make do” with whatever food was available. Grandma Viola used to say that “Necessity was the mother of all inventions.” Prior to 1850, most recipes were learned by hands-on training and were seldom written down. Recipe books were not commonly available which is why most of the way we cook today is known from memory and has been passed down by word of mouth.
One of the greatest contributions from Native Americans was their introduction of new foods to settlers who came and settled in these regions. There are few Southern and Appalachian families that continue the pioneer practice of using wild plants and wild fruits to increase their food supply. Wild plants and fruits were also used as medicines.
In the days before refrigerators, or as my grandma calls it, the “frigidaire”, food supplies were preserved by salting, brining, pickling, curing, drying and canning. Some families used spring houses to prevent their food from spoiling. Spring houses were small houses built over cold mountain springs where milk, butter and other foods were placed in the cold water to maintain their freshness. Those who did not have a spring house stored their food in the water bucket and lowered it into the water well.
The Queen of Greens
Creasy greens also known as Creasy – Creesies – Creacies – Creecie – you don’t spell it, just say it! It is the caviar of all Southern greens! In Europe, it was known as “scurvy grass” as it was one of the few greens available in mid-winter to help prevent the debilitating disease. Similar to watercress, it’s the brevity of goodness that grows wild and shows up in great abundance very late in winter and early spring.
These bright green doilies grow flat near creeks, meadows, cornfields, backcountry roads and even your own back yard. These pretty rosettes must be gathered in late February or March before the flower stalk forms. They taste similar to mustard greens but with a spicy kick which is why sometimes it’s called Peppergrass. Creasy greens grow to the size of a dinner plate. As they grow larger, the mustard-like flavor becomes stronger and becomes “spicy hot” which makes them tough and unfit to eat. Because it is the earliest of spring wild greens, folks would go out with their paper bags or sacks to gather this lesser-known wild green. It was a family ritual in March or April.
A popular song during the War Between the States written by Samuel Cowell, “Bacon & Greens” evoked fond table memories for hungry soldiers who missed home cooking. The last stanza described how to eat the hearty dish:
“Oh, there’s charm in this dish, rightly taken/ Than from custards and jellies an epicure weans/ Stick your fork in the fat/ wrap your greens round the bacon/And you’ll vow there’s no dish like good bacon and greens.”
But for slaves, the dreary daily diet of bacon and greens was not a source for celebration. During and after the Reconstruction Era, African American laborers worked in Southern work camps which were basically quasi-slavery conditions under the guise of contract labor. Camp cooks set up shanty kitchens that served little more than greens and hog jowl, a diet that generated a tradition of anemia and rickets among the region’s poor.
Creasy Greens are par-boiled until they wilt and then removed from the liquid. Then a meat broth is added from a country ham, pork chop, ham hock or fatback. The greens are then boiled for 30 to 40 mins and then the broth is drained. Sometimes the broth would be drained into a cup to drink or as we like to call it pot likker. In my opinion, creasy greens are best served with cornbread and sweet potatoes. I think the bitterness of the greens is balanced out with the sweetness of the sweet potato. Creasy greens also make a good sandwich if you add the raw chopped leaves to egg salad.
Leather Britches (Leather Breeches)
The old shucky beans or Leather britches were an easy crop to grow. Before canning was introduced in the 20th century, there were three ways of preserving beans – pickling, drying the shelled beans and making leather britches.
Shucky beans have always been a popular vegetable in Southern and Appalachian families. The practices of drying green beans to make “leather britches” seems to be unique to the Appalachia and Southern regions. They didn’t require a nary bit of any kind of fertilizer in the crop field. The only kind of pest you had to worry about was groundhogs and if you had a dog, you could train them to hunt for those little rascals.
The string beans are dried, strung and hung in the sun to preserve them through the winter. It’s not uncommon in the late summer to see strings of leather britches hanging to dry from the ceiling of the back porch, hanging in the kitchen, pantry or rafters in the attic. Another favorite place to hang them was the good ole smokehouse.
Native Americans strung leather britches with a babiche over a slow fire to preserve the pods from mildew and weevils. Babiche is a term used for lacing or cord cut from semi-softened rawhide, leather, bark, pelts or sinew. These cords were also used to tie back skin tepee walls to allow cooking fumes to escape or to lace and hang a cradleboard.
This method of preserving beans was passed down to the settlers who at the time called them shucky beans. They emulated the cutting of babiche and threading of beans. The strings of beans were then tied to cabin beams. The beans withered and curled as they dried to where they looked like leather britches that had gotten wet and then dried out.
Leather britches was even served by the White House kitchen when President Andrew Jackson was inaugurated.
Back in the day, the beans were cooked in an iron pot over hickory firewood burning in the fireplace. A big chunk of good ole home-made hog meat from Hog Killin’ Day was added to help season them. When no glass jars were available for canning, quantities of dried apples and peaches were saved and leather britches were strung up and dried.
Woven into the fabric of Southern and Appalachian culture, leather britches has even been memorialized in country music. Tommy Dandurand and his Barn Dance Fiddlers recorded the song “Leather Breeches” back in the 1920s and it became a successful hit. Dandurand, later identified as Timothy Cornrow through historical documents, was an old-time fiddler who dominated the National Barn Dance country music show on WLS radio in Chicago.
Doc Watson stated in The Tennessean newspaper, “There’s a few of the old-timey things I like to do. I like good dried apple pie and I like leather britches beans”. In 1980, Doc Watson and Merle Watson won the Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance for their song, “Big Sandy/Leather Britches”.
Creasy Greens and leather britches are quickly falling under the list of forgotten Southern and Appalachian favorite foods.
We enjoy the foods provided to us today in fancy tin cans and frilly packages of frozen foods. Those old rafter nails that use to hold leather britches also served other purposes in days gone by. Those rusty nails were also used to hang onions, red peppers and leather strips for shoe strings made from groundhog hides. You knew the winter season was here when you looked up and saw all kinds of goodies hanging over the doors and from the ceilings. Those big nails were also used to hang bags of seeds. Some families used those seed sacks to hide money during the Civil War. The raiders never suspected there was money hanging in some of those old seed bags.
Oh, times have changed since those days. Those of us with fond childhood memories of stringing leather britches and foraging in the woods for good eating creasy greens have quickly faded with future generations.
By Hope Thompson