Sometime around 1850 a Midwestern American farmer named Mostellor shot a wild goose above his wheat fields. Dressing out the welcome addition to Sunday dinner the curious shooter cut into the bird’s crop which bulged with something that didn’t feel like the expected purloined grain. Out spilled a handful of bean seeds mostly white but with an unusual brown spot on each one. The frugal descendent of pioneer settlers saved the seeds for planting the next spring, only to be rewarded with a generation of prosperous, productive green vegetable beans promising enough to share with neighbors. They of course became known as the Wild Goose bean, a variety which was regionally popular for a time. The unanswered question of where the wandering waterfowl found them is part of the story’s charm and I am fortunate to have a sample in my historic seed collection along with other “heirlooms” such as Blue Coco, Rattlesnake, Dixie Speckled, Wren’s Egg and my own favorite of all for baking, Jacob’s Cattle.
It wasn’t until I lived and traveled extensively in Mexico and Central America that I began to appreciate the far wider role this basic legume plays and has played in the spread and very survival of human populations around the world. Living and eating with families as I went, I came to know I would probably be treated to phaseolus vulgaris (the common dry bean) in one form or another at two -- or even more likely – three meals a day. I noticed that in the Puebla home of Seňora Meija there was always a pot of beans warming on the back of her kitchen stove top available to whatever culinary need might arise. I also observed the power of regional food loyalties when shopping the markets with my Mexican friends. At the sprawling open-air market in Zacatelco one day, I was admiring a particularly colorful bean variety I thought I would like to add to my collection when my horrified friend and guide Esteban tried to talk me out of that choice. “Oh no Al, we don’t eat that kind of bean here!”
As we traveled south and into the more remote areas on and near the border with Guatemala, I was impressed with the obvious strength and health of the native people we met. Descendants of the Maya they evidenced no apparent tendency toward obesity, and were blessed with sound teeth, clear vision, and a visible happy and carefree (and very family-oriented) cultural norm. They were poor by world standards, but rich in so many ways. With only occasional access to animal protein they lived richly on a diet of beans and corn; the marriage of a legume and a grain which represents a near-perfect example of protein complimentarity.
If there is a real superfood it is indeed phaseolus vulgaris, a nutrient-dense high-fiber gift to the world we now know originated nearly 11,000 years ago in two places: The Andes Mountains near Peru and the vast valley of Mexico and Central America. The two gene pools and their different paths have only fairly recently been confirmed by a study of human dental remains. Today the global annual dry bean harvest exceeds 18.7 million tons in 150 countries, and it feeds a large percentage of the world’s population, usually with corn, rice, quinoa, amaranth or the wheat family or occasional animal meat to complete the protein profile.
As I write the final paragraphs of this column, I am keeping an eye out for a Dutch oven of Black Bean Bisque bubbling in the kitchen: 3 cups of dry beans, two minced onions, a cup or two of chopped tomatoes, 3 or 4 cloves of fresh garlic and two fire-roasted Poblano peppers plus some broth and flavoring gives our two-person household hearty daily portions for six days. (The use of a pressure cooker reduces cooking time to less than 20 minutes.) We have proven that 60 pounds of dry beans plus some flavorings and dried preserved peppers will keep us in essentials for one year. Cornmeal muffins make a great accompaniment.
Black beans take the prize with us, not only because of their overall flavor and diversity of uses, but because we now know that in addition to the parade of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients the bean family offers, the black colored seed coat is an outstanding source of three flavinoids not commonly available which together provide notable support for digestive tract and colon health.
Admittedly opinionated, I prefer Jacob’s cattle or Vermont Soldier for our maple-flavored New England baked beans, Small Red for New Orleans dishes and Canollini (White Kidney) for my pet Minestrone. And then of course I still have those Wild Goose beans to fall back on.
Zacatelco Open Air Market in Mexico
Al Cooper Photo