Time to gather the crops against the coming winter

Posted by | September 28, 2010

Please welcome Jim Casada, a son of the N. C. Smokies, who has written or edited more than 50 books. His most recent effort, “Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion,” was described by noted literary figure Nick Lyons as “a book anyone who knows or plans to visit the Smokies will cherish, but also a book that anyone who takes pleasure in fine writing will admire greatly. I do.” Part history, part reminiscence, and part fly fishing, it is a work the author considers his ‘book of a lifetime.’ To learn more about Casada, or to sign up for a free subscription to his monthly e-newsletter (the above selection comes from the October, 2007 version), visit his web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.

In bygone days, as katydids sang their ageless songs and as the sun shone across sere fields of fall, serious preparation for winter’s coming lean, mean times commenced.

Kentucky Wonder pole beans, likely planted with Hickory Cane corn, which did double duty by providing a way for the prolific beans to climb skyward, would be picked and prepared in one of two ways. Some would be strung, broken, and canned. They canned beans, stored in row upon row of quart-size Mason jars, which would include a fair portion of beans shelled from yellowing pods mixed liberally with the predominant color of green.

Leather britches (top), dried corn (l), and dried apple rings.

Other portions of the harvest, including not only pickings from pole beans, but from bunch beans and half-runners as well, would be utilized for leather britches. This is the delightfully descriptive mountain term for dried green beans. These would be strung, left whole, and dried in the late summer sun while hanging from barn rafters, porch eaves, or maybe spread atop a tin roof.

Usually, though not always, preparation for drying was accomplished by using a strong sewing needle and heavy thread to pierce the beans, one at a time, until you reached a length of three feet or so. This made for convenient storage and maximum exposure during the drying process.

Of course along with pole beans sections of most corn fields would have been planted with another type of legume, variously known as October beans, shelly beans, corn field beans, speckled beans, or, occasionally, the proper name of horticultural beans. They would have been planted, a couple of seeds to a hill, along with the corn. Like pole beans, these too are climbers, but unlike green beans they hung on the vines until fully dry (usually in October, hence the common name, October beans). These would be gathered and then shelled, usually by spreading hulls on an old sheet or a bunch of tow sacks sewn together and then beating them with a flail to separate beans from husks. Once separated, they would be dried a bit more, then stored for use in scrumptious meals once cold weather laid its chilly hand on the land.

Then there was the field corn amidst which the beans grew. Whether a given homestead opted for Hickory Cane or some other favorite, this would be a type of corn which dried well, was suitable for grinding into meal, and could also be used to feed the farm’s animals. The corn would be pulled, ear by ear, from stalks and stored in a crib for future use. Of course some of it might have been used for roastin’ ears or soup mix during the brief period when the corn was tender, or in the milk as my Grandpa Joe used to put it. More often though, different varieties, known as sweet corn and planted in the family garden plot, would serve those purposes.

The shucks of the field corn were left intact, a sort of natural protection against the elements. Corn had a wide variety of uses, including fattening up the family hogs for killing time a few weeks down the road, use in feeding chickens (and maybe guineas or turkeys as well), for the farm’s horses or mules (my father said that their work horses always got six ears a day, along with hay), and of course for human use. The latter would involve shelling, which could be done by hand, but most families had a hand-cranked sheller which handled one ear at a time. Each year some of the biggest, prettiest ears would be set aside and saved—seed for planting the crop come spring.

Cushaw squash.

Amidst the beans and corn, showing just how skilled mountain folks were in getting the best from the land, there would have been other crops as well. Pumpkins, candy roasters, and cushaws would have been planted here and there, and it was time to gather them as well. Already cured and with their vines withered, when carefully stored in a cannery, underneath corn shocks, or in other cool, dry places, these various members of the winter squash family would keep for months. They furnished the basic ingredients of scrumptious pies but were also used as a vegetable and as food for livestock.

As a boy I loved gathering them, because scattered throughout the field where they grew would be ground cherries. Once their husks dried and the little fruit turned a bright yellow, they were ready to pop into your mouth and offered a taste somewhat reminiscent of pineapple and with a hint of tomato.

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