There are 40,000 different known kinds of beans, and it sometimes seems like Southerners have at least that many names for the smattering of the global total that grows here.
Tiny, young butter beans, which are limas harvested when they're pale green and tender, are variously called Carolina beans, Sewee beans and butter peas. But in the Lowcountry, they're traditionally referred to as "sivvy beans," a moniker that food historian John Martin Taylor suspects evolved from their association with the Sewee. European settlers likely learned about the stewable bean from the Indian tribe.
According to Ronni Lundy, author of "Butter Beans to Blackberries," Auburn University's Joe Kemble has attributed the name's derivation to "a corruption of the more proper name, sieva bean." Merriam-Webster dates that term back to 1888.
In a 1948 supplement to "The American Language," his study of regional American English, H.L. Mencken cited a scholar who had recorded Sumter County residents using the expression "sivvy bean" to describe lima beans.
Butter beans, by any name, have long been a sentimental favorite: Lundy's cookbook drew its name from a restaurant anecdote featuring William Faulkner and Katherine Ann Porter, then a pair of displaced Southerners in Paris.
"Everything had been laid out to perfection; a splendid meal had been consumed," Eugene Walter recounted in his 1971 Time Life book, "American Cooking: Southern Style." "The maitre d' and an entourage of waiters hovered close by, ready to satisfy any final whim. 'Back home, the butter beans are in,' said Faulkner, peering into the distance."
Sivvy beans are indeed in now. Lundy recommends boiling them with a ham hock, in much the same fashion favored by Thomas Jefferson. At Monticello, the sweet, delicate beans were served in boats of melted butter. "I never saw them in France," Jefferson wrote.
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