Leather Breeches

Preserving Food and Southern Root

Being from the South, and of the South, has been a personal struggle: being proud of my heritage, but equally ashamed of it. I am not the only southerner who has faced this struggle. Some seek atonement and salvation from their preferred translation of the Bible, while others drink to forget the past crimes, or choose to see the world through rose-colored glasses.

I chose to run. I’ve never been the confrontational type, nor have I ever subscribed to the concept of finding an inner peace despite all my mistakes. When given an option to leave my small town in Dalton, Georgia, I took it and never wanted to look back. It has taken me over two decades to admit this, but I didn’t want to face that inner battle.

Looking back, it was, at best, a futile plan. I can’t run from myself, who I am, and where I came from. I found this out when I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, a city where the first of my European lineage settled (in what is now the Biltmore Estate) back in the 1750s.

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This story doesn’t go back the full 300 years of my heritage traced throughout the South, but instead begins 100 years ago with a lady whom I loved and whom I’d forgotten, putting her on a shelf in a dusty corner of my memories, and only bringing her up from time to time when talking with my mother.

Her name was Etta Fay Shipman. She’s been gone for about 22 years now, but I can still find her presence in my 40-year-old self. She was, from what I could remember, and from accounts I’ve been told, a resilient woman, raising 14 kids with and without a husband (my grandpa passed decades before I was born). What I remember of Etta Fay was an older lady who loved her children, chihuahuas, and cornbread with Sanka or buttermilk. She would often fall asleep while watching daytime soap operas and game shows.

One of the greatest things I remember about Etta Fay is that she liked to can. She was, after all, a child of the Great Depression in a region that was already perpetually economically depressed. There were always cans of tomatoes, beans, potatoes, and pickles here and there around her house.

Once I realized that I couldn’t escape who I essentially was, I began to research many aspects of Etta Fay’s culinary life. This led me to another forgotten way of preserving: air-drying beans.

Leather breeches (britches) are one of the remnants of pioneer times. I remember Granny having a few strings of greasy beans hanging around the front porch. The process of taking delicate green or yellow wax beans and transforming them into a powerful explosion of umami and texture is as easy for a novice preserver as it is intriguing to a seasoned packer. With a little creativity, the concept can be applied to almost any vegetable in the garden.

Much like the traditional practice of sun-drying tomatoes, the conditions for making leather breeches involve nothing more than a little heat and some wind. While the procedure that I used for the leather breeches in this instance involved no direct sunlight for heat, the outcome is the same—a bean dehydrated of about 80% of its moisture that is shelf-stable for months. (I confess that I still have a quart-size mason jar stuffed with my first attempt from nearly two years ago that look just as beautiful as the day they came off the string).

The real magic of this process comes when you cook the beans and develop the wondrous aroma of summertime and a deep bold flavor from the beans. In the depths of Ohio winter, I have had many wistful summer dreams over a cooking pot of these little beans.