Tomatoes tend to get all the attention this time of year but there is another vegetable, so delicious, so easy to grow, so humble, so Southern, that it belongs in every Texan’s garden. I’m talking about butterbeans. Some of you may refer to them as lima beans – the terms can be used interchangeably – but poor lima beans suffer from an overcooked-and-underseasoned-school-cafeteria reputation that still haunts many adults, even though they haven’t touched a lima bean in decades. Butterbeans, on the other hand, elicit nothing but comforting memories of gardens, grannies, greens and cornbread. One of the more memorable comments I’ve heard about butterbeans came from AgriLife Extension Fruit Specialist Jim Kamas. At a fruit seminar a few years ago I had the occasion to ask if he enjoyed butterbeans as a child, and without hesitation he fondly recalled his childhood in Belleville and those luscious beans from his grandmother’s garden. She used to tell him that “if you were eating butterbeans, you were the luckiest boy in town”. Such a sweet and memorable sentiment coming from a man who lives and breathes Texas peaches. Lucky indeed.
There are several varieties of butterbeans to choose from and I’ve never grown one I didn’t like. Some are bush, some are pole, some are green, some are white, some are speckled but they all like warm weather and they all grow well in Texas.
You can usually find small packets of butter beans at farm supply or garden centers. Online sources for seeds include Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com), Willhite Seed (www.willhiteseed.com), Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org) and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com).
Because they like warm conditions it is best to plant them a couple of weeks after you plant green beans – any time this month is good. They are not particular about soil but be sure to give them full sun and regular moisture. Pole varieties are quite vigorous and will need a sturdy structure to climb. Most bush varieties are ready for picking in 60-65 days; pole varieties take a week or two longer. Butter beans, especially pole varieties, usually produce through the summer but if it is exceptionally hot and dry (and who knows what awaits us this summer!) their blooms may shut down. Keep them watered and they’ll perk up again in the fall and produce like crazy.
If you are new to the business of butter beans, keep in mind that they must be shelled. Not really a big deal unless you plant rows and rows that all come ready at once – then you’ll have some work to do. If you have room in the garden plant a few short rows of different varieties with varying maturity rates so you’ll be able to space out the picking, the shelling and the eating. Cooking is simple, the less you do to them the better – just flavor with a little bacon fat, salt and pepper and let their subtle flavor and creamy texture shine. The fresher they are the quicker they cook, usually less than 45 minutes.
Butterbeans used to be a common side dish served at kitchen tables across the South, but like corded phones, station wagons and cassette tapes, they are at risk of becoming yet another reminder of simpler times and days gone by. Shoved aside by an industrious society fueled by quick-to-fix processed food, their destiny lies at the mercy of local farmers and vegetable gardeners willing to continue their cultivation. I hope you will help carry on their legacy by planting, eating and saving seed. Sop up the simplicity of this humble bean and enjoy a taste that is rich, down-home and satisfying, and always remember how lucky you are to be eating fresh butter beans.
The secret to a tasty pot likker is to simmer the cooking liquid with bacon drippings or ham hocks for at least 30 minutes before you add the beans.
1 ham hock, ham bone or 1-2 tablespoons bacon drippings**
2 quarts water or chicken broth
4-6 cups shelled butterbeans
¼ cup brown sugar (optional, but a common ingredient)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
Bring water and ham hock or bacon drippings to a boil and simmer 30-40 minutes. Add the beans and simmer until tender, about 30-40 minutes, adding more water if necessary, to keep beans covered by about 1 inch. Season with salt and pepper.
** Vegetarian-minded folks can forgo the pig meat and cook beans in water or vegetable broth. Season with salt and pepper then top off with a pat of butter.