Every week, we’re unearthing Heirloom Recipes -- dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.
My great grandfather Frank (left) with my grandma (in front of him), and great grandmother Alma (center, holding camera) during a picnic atop Roan Mountain, NC.
What started as a transcription of traditional Appalachian pickled corn and beans soon became a translation. For example: “Place a plate on the cloth and weight it down with a river rock…pour spring water over beans and corn.”
It's idyllic imagery, no doubt, but hardly plausible instructions for the majority of modern cooks, especially in my newly adopted home of New York City.
But for the woman sharing her recipe with me, as well as several generations of both sides of my family in western North Carolina, river rocks and spring water are plausible, if not at one time practical. Add a multi-gallon stoneware crock, pickling salt, a couple dozen glass canning jars, and some cheesecloths “to keep the critters out” and you’ve basically got the setup to preserve bushels (that’s the technical term) of produce.
The first time that I tried pickled corn and beans, I was six and visiting my great grandparents’ farm for a few sticky days in late July. My Pa Frank (pictured above) had just returned from the river with his fishing rod and several slick, plump trout. He took them directly to the basement, where he splayed their guts and retrieved rosy pink filets. Later, as we descended to get a jar of canned garden produce to go with lunch, the smell of fish parts wafted up the steps in a cool rush of air. We squinted at the basement shelves in the dim light and found a quart of corn and beans somewhere between wild blackberry preserves and canned meat (pâté is its fancy name).
Although I no longer remember the exact taste, I do remember my physical reaction: My lips pursed, my cheeks flexed inward, and my eyes squinted as I took my first mouthful. Naturally, I had expected what looked like corn and beans to taste as such. Brine experienced, I learned that pickles weren’t always saccharine bread and butter cucumber spears; instead, they can bite.
If pickling corn and beans in the southern Appalachian tradition was easy, then tracking down someone who still practices “the old way” to help me write this recipe wouldn’t have required much effort. Truth is though, it’s a significantly involved process that, to some, has long been an obsolete method. Along with the equipment, it ultimately requires patience, confidence and, according to many, accordance with “the signs” -- a folk tradition and zodiac calendar indicating the best times to plant, harvest, and engage in other other farm activities.
This is a recipe born out of necessity for when the garden was scarce, the store was far, and money was tight. Some things have changed, but reasons of tradition, we still do it. It’s worth it since the mixture has a brightly acidic and earthy taste that is irresistible when cooked in grease from fatback (a smoked fatty strip off the back of a pig) and served with buttered cornbread.
If I had shared the truest version of this recipe, then I should have copied my transcription verbatim with details including the use of a river rock and spring water. But until my intuition is as cultivated as that of the women who trust their senses, I’ll keep following my itemized and adapted recipe while I search for a stoneware crock in the city.
Makes 8 quarts
2 dozen ears of yellow corn; shucked and silked
1/2 bushel (4 gallons) half runner beans; strings removed and “broken” into 1 to 2" pieces
Pickling salt (do not substitute with iodized salt -- the mixture will not pickle; kosher salt also works)
1 Farmers' Almanac
1 5 gallon stoneware crock
1 dinner plate; it should be able to fit inside the crock
Enough unchlorinated water to fill the crock
Enough string to tie around the rim of the crock
1 pair of tongs
10-12 quart-size canning jars
Note: The readaptation of this recipe from NC to NYC would not have been possible without the help of Amanda Feifer of Phickle. I reached out to her for basic guidance and, from the first email, she was incredibly generous with her extensive fermentation knowledge. She’s the woman to ask if you have fermentation frustrations.
Photos by Lauren Wilson