Foodways Tuesdays: Dried Beans, Foxfire, and Oral History for Teens
Welcome to PH‘s new food history series, Foodways Tuesdays. This will be occasional, but will always appear on a Tuesday. I plan to mostly discuss connections between foodways and living history; that is, actually doing historic food preparation. I will also consider other intersections between food, museums, and history, such as storage issues for old canned items.
Today we consider the leather breeches bean.
LEATHER BREECHES BEANS–String tender green beans. Fill a long needle with a long strong thread. Push the needle through the center of the bean, pushing the beans together at the end of the thread, from knot end to needle. Hang up the string by one end in the warm air, but not in direct sunlight. This gives the beans a better flavor. Let them remain hanging until the beans become dry. Store in a bag until ready to use.
(The Foxfire Book, p. 175)
Drying is a simple food preservation technique that requires no special equipment (though one can certainly use a fancy dehydrator), and persisted even after the popularity of home canning (beginning around 1860) and freezing (post-electrification, around the 1920s and 30s). For the Appalachian folks interviewed in the Foxfire books, drying beans, along with pickling and canning, were a way to stretch the harvest all year and provide some variety in a somewhat monotonous diet.
TO COOK LEATHER BREECHES BEANS: Sometime during the winter take a string of dried green beans down, remove the thread, and drop them in a pot of scalding water. Then add “a good hunk’a meat” (ham, pork, or the like, depending on your taste) and cook all morning.
As Andy Webb said, “Now they’s somethin’ good ta’eat. I’d rather have them then canned beans.”
(The Firefox Book, p. 167)
Foxfire started as a magazine produced by high school students in Rabun Gap, Georgia, in 1966, with help from teacher Eliot Wigginton. (Check out the Foxfire Fund.) The students drove out into the mountains and interviewed their grandparents and other people of their grandparents’ generation about self-sufficient living in Appalachia. The first Foxfire volume, for instance, discusses building log cabins, dressing hogs, planting by the signs, building a still, making soap, basketweaving, snake lore, and more. The books also included profiles of people living self-sufficient country lifestyles, like Aunt Arie, who became an informant and friend to the student historians. The magazine became a success, and generated a number of collected volumes, which with their practical tone and great curiousity and zeal for documenting the past, spoke to back-to-the-landers in the 70s.
The DIY projects in the Foxfire books are easy to follow, as seen above, and can be recreated as group projects for K-12 + public history programming. I strung beans in my kitchen with a friend and left them to dry at home. Not only the individual projects, but also the whole Foxfire ethos, can be useful for teaching and learning public history.
Foxfire also became an inspiration to other students interested in documenting the disappearing cultural heritage of their regions, and several dozen other Foxfire-type magazines were started across the world, including Salt in Maine. Salt’s teacher/adviser, Pamela Wood, wrote a treasure of a DIY book on starting your own Foxfire magazine, You and Aunt Arie: A guide to cultural journalism based on Foxfire and its descendants in the US and abroad. (I recently found a copy at a used bookstore.)
You and Aunt Arie includes an excellent introduction for teens to doing oral history, with step by step guidelines for how to set up and conduct an interview, including suggestions for interview prompts and examples from other magazines. An example of Pamela’s practical wisdom:
There isn’t an interviewer alive who hasn’t asked a stupid question at one time or another. If your contact likes you and feels you mean well, chances are he won’t chase you out of the house with a shotgun when you ask a stupid question. Chances are he’ll grin and set you straight.
Besides, aren’t you there to learn? A stupid question will convince your contact that you need his help if you’re ever going to find out what you need to know. Don’t ask a stupid question on purpose, but don’t be petrified for fear you’ll ask one. We’ve all done it.”
(You and Aunt Arie, p. 22)
It also includes almost everything else one would need to know to put out a low-budget magazine in the seventies: how to take photographs, write a story from your interviews, lay out a page, organize your editorial staff. Though the technological bits are rather outdated, everything is clearly written and useful, and filled with an admirable sincerity and optimism.
You and your magazine are a search party looking for mystery and meaning in your own familiar world. In your worst moments you will be tricked by what seems commonplace: “just a yucca plant” or “just a lobster boat” or “just the old fellow down the street” or “just an empty mountain.”
In your best moments you will stand in awe and make others stand in awe: “this is a yucca plant” or “this is a lobster boat” or “this is the fellow down the street” or “this is an unspoiled mountain.” In your best moments you will register like damp sand the tracks of your life that throbs around you, and people will know from looking at your pages that something live is passing by.
And it is then that you become what you are, the proud link between the past and the future.
(You and Aunt Arie, p. 219)