Article Contributed by Judith Lessler, Durham Farmers’ Market Vendor
The botanical family of all beans is the Fabaceae or Leguminosae and includes peas, beans, and lentils. It is a large family with over 700 genera and includes trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. There are Old World and New World beans. The New World is the western hemisphere made up of North and South America. The Old World is in the Eastern Hemisphere (Europe, Africa, and Asia.) Old world beans are in the genus Vigna and new world beans in Phaseolus. Vigna includes favas and lentils. They were eaten by the ancients, found in Egyptian tombs, and dug up from the remnants of ancient fires in Tibet. The world’s most popular bean recipe mentioned in the first missive on legumes is made from fava beans.
The common bean is Phaseolus vulgaris. It is currently the most popular eating bean for both fresh and dried beans. It includes kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, and navy beans, as well as, familiar fresh bean varieties such as great northern, flageolet, haricots vert, cannellini, borlotti, Jacob’s Cattle, Kentucky wonder, Blue Lake and so on. When we eat fresh beans we are eating the hulls and immature seeds; dried beans are the mature seeds. Seed Savers Exchange lists some 4000 cultivars of beans.
Like many people in the news today, Phaseolus came from Mesoamerica—an area which encompasses the current countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Columbus brought new world beans to Europe when he returned from his second voyage. These Mesoamerican migrants were welcomed, and Phaseolus vulgaris quickly spread over the entire world. As noted on the website, Republic of Beans, sixteenth century Europeans were part of the Age of Discovery. They “fanned out over earth spreading exotic foods. Hardy New World legumes soon became a popular crop in Europe because” they were easy to grow and store and had excellent nutritional value. They were a primary food for sailors with one variety ended up being called the Navy bean, which you can buy canned in most grocery stores.
Beans come in a variety of colors, some of which are almost jewel-like. If you can get a print copy of the April 23 2018, New Yorker, you can see a wonderful illustration of such these diverse colors. (You can also read this at https://www.newyorker.com/; but the illustration is not as good as in the print version.)
Because beans, in nature, are spread by the shell popping open and propelling seeds across the soil, it is unusual for there to be so many colors because these colors do not serve to attract mates, birds, or insects to spread the bean’s offspring. Rather, we humans are responsible for this diversity. We gather, carefully clean, dry, preserve, and replant these beans in new places. Left to its own devices Phaseolus would soon become more uniform. This is true of all cultivars; humans are the bean’s agent; we ensure that various types of beans grow, prosper, and maintain their place on the world-stage.
I am not sure how this relates to the current situation with human Mesoamericans. But for the fact that the organic certification inspector is coming to my farm this week, I might come up with a theory. But, for now, you are on your own to figure this out.
In fitting with world-wide trips beans have made, I have included a recipe for Sichuan Green Beans. Sichuan is a providence of China and is known for its cuisine which features garlic and hot spices. Their dishes often have fanciful names such as, Kung Pao chicken and Ants Climbing a Tree. This one does not.