Wash day beans are an old tradition, one that has taken on many forms in many places. The story goes that laundry day was once a week, usually a Monday, back when doing the wash meant heating up vats of water on an old wood stove to dump in the wash tub, then scrubbing the clothes by hand on that old washboard. The practical housewife was not likely to plan an elaborate meal to add to her work load, but the menfolk who spent the day laboring in the fields still needed a hearty meal. So, with the woodstove already fired up, our smart lady would put a pot of beans with some piece of meat on the back burner to simmer away while she got on with the washing. As I understand it, this is the origin of red beans and rice and many other slow-simmered bean dishes, and the tradition of eating red beans and rice on Monday still persists in Louisiana and around the South. But for me, wash day beans always conjures up this classic, old-fashioned sweet and tangy green bean dish. I buy gorgeous green beans at the farmers market, or pole beans take to this method wonderfully.
I have often thought that the tendency in the modern kitchen for quickly cooking vegetables misses a real trick. “Crisp-tender” is the buzzword for vegetables now, but the common assumption that vegetables cooked long and slow are overcooked is a shame. There is a transformative point in the cooking when the beans turn into something magical, wholly apart from their quick-cooked cousins. I attended a food conference recently where John Egerton, a master of Southern cuisine and cooking, stated that “slow-cooked green beans get a bad rap.” I couldn’t agree more. And it had me rushing home to rustle up some wash day beans.
Wash Day Green Beans
I usually cut the beans into pieces about 2 inches long for ease of eating, but it is not necessary. These shrink and turn a deep, mellow green.
12 strips of bacon
6 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
6 Tablespoons sugar
2 pounds of fresh green beans, washed and trimmed
Ground black pepper
Cut the bacon in to small pieces and drop into a large skillet with a lid, preferably black cast iron. Cook the bacon until it is crispy, then remove to paper towels with a slotted spoon to drain. Take the bacon drippings in the skillet off the heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. If you add ingredients while the grease is hot, everything will splash and sizzle and burn.
When the bacon drippings have cooled off, add the cider vinegar and the sugar and return to medium high heat. Stir until the sugar is melted. Add the green beans and about ¾ of the bacon pieces and stir to coat. Cover the pot, lower the heat and cook on low for 2 – 3 hours, stirring occasionally, until you are ready to serve.
Sprinkle with ground black pepper and the remaining bacon pieces. Serve immediately.
Serve 6 – 8