Overlooked beans are ripe with history
I planted an unnamed variety of yellow wax bean in late July — about two dozen seeds — and by late summer the vines were so vigorous and fruitful that I couldn’t keep up with them in the kitchen.
This surfeit was fine because with a winning bean like that, you want to stop picking it a few weeks before the end of the growing season. This period allows the beans inside to develop, mature and ripen. Now, at the garden’s end, the pods are wizened and the beans ready for winter. Some will be saved as seed for next year; the rest will be put aside to use in stews.
The dried bean in all its forms has none of the trendiness of kale, blueberries or antique tomatoes. I find this puzzling because the bean asks so little of us and gives so much in return. Most varieties will take the heat and humidity of our summer garden — no small thing — and grow as fine little bushes or handsome curtains.
Some of them are hardly less than jewels, in their forms and coloration. The Hidatsa Red Indian bean is the color of coral; Nonna Agnes’s Blue Bean seems made of lapis, and my yellow wax bean is now a polished onyx black.
I asked Rosalind Creasy, author of the classic book “Edible Landscaping,” to name a beautiful bean, and she picked the Christmas lima, which is mottled maroon and white and valued for its nuttiness. “It has a lot more flavor than white limas,” she said.
Limas and runner beans in particular have spectacular markings when dried, but so does the common green bean in all its guises. Some form pods as strikingly marked as the seeds within. Bird Egg beans have seeds with dark red stripes; the pod is cream mottled with a pink-raspberry hue. Dragon’s Tongue is a Dutch wax bean with pods of purple striations.
“It’s funny they aren’t revered more,” said Lee Buttala, executive director of Seed Savers Exchange, the Decorah, Iowa, organization dedicated to preserving America’s heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables.
If beans were fussier to grow, use or store, they might get more respect. Buttala is not among the indifferent.
“Beans might be our way of staving off Armageddon,” he said. This is only part hyperbole. A bean named the Cherokee Trail of Tears sustained, to some degree, the Cherokee Indians forced from their tribal lands in the 19th century. The black-seeded pole bean is still available from heirloom nurseries such as Baker Creek.
Because they are self-pollinating, beans will come true from seed. And the dried bean is eminently portable, not only between continents but generations. There are thousands of heirloom varieties of beans in the United States, and each one has a story.
Many originate from American Indian tribes and were adopted and altered through selection by European settlers. Others may have started out in the Americas but were further developed in the Old World before returning with immigrants.
The bean is central to the fairy tale about Jack and the beanstalk, but the histories of each variety tend to be fabulous themselves. In the 1860s, a southwestern Pennsylvania matriarch was preparing a goose for the oven and found beans in its craw. They were duly recovered and planted. Still available, the Mostoller Wild Goose bean is brown and white and used for soups and as a baked bean. “Her family grew it out for six generations,” Buttala said.
Seed Savers is the steward of some 5,000 varieties of beans, preserved year to year in cold storage and grown out periodically to refresh the genes. A New Englander named John Withee provided the core of the stocks, donating 1,186 varieties in 1981, 12 years before his death. He may be to the bean what Johnny Appleseed was to the apple.
Spurred by a need to find a lost variety named Jacob’s Cattle, Withee traveled the Northeast searching for beans that had been handed down by generations. By 1975, he had preserved 200 varieties. But in retirement he devoted more time to his quest, and within six years his collection exceeded 1,000.
Jacob’s Cattle is also back in broad circulation, a bush variety whose beans dry to beige with maroon-brown markings.
“All of our seeds are part of our food tradition, but they are really part of our memory, and John is a perfect example of that. What sent him on his quest was to find a variety he remembered growing up eating,” Buttala said.
I don’t attach any great memories to my yellow wax bean — I can’t even remember where I got it — but I like that I can put the seeds on the shelf to dry fully, stick them in a bag in the fridge and have them to sow next year. Creasy reminded me to put them in the freezer for a few days to kill the eggs of any weevils.
Once safely stored, they represent self-sufficiency, which in an indebted world is the ultimate luxury.