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Follow the beans and you will know the story of civilization. Few foods are as closely linked to human history as beans.
Beans were an essential food for early man. The Roman term legumen, from which "legume" is derived, is defined as edible seeds formed in pods that can be eaten as porridge or as a purée. The noun is derived from lego, meaning "to gather or select."
The first more or less permanent settlements evolved when hunter-gatherers and nomads stopped roaming around and began tilling the soil. Beans or legumes, which, in this context, include all the pulses and peas, were among their original crops.
Scholars can only speculate on the origins of farming. Did some late Paleolithic individual or group discover that some seeds, set aside in the corner of a cave or in some kind of container, had begun to sprout? And that their tiny leaves looked like plants they had seen growing and whose pods they had gathered, leading to the conclusion that the seeds could be put back into the earth to grow again?
However it happened, this discovery led mankind from the rudeness of the Paleolithic era to the New Stone Age, or Neolithic period, characterized by primitive agriculture, the domestication of animals, and the crafting of tools. And beans were there.
Archaeologists have found evidence of peas in an excavation called the "Spirit Cave," on the border between what are now Myanmar and Thailand, that has been carbon-dated to9750 B.C. The word "pea" is thought to be derived from Sanskrit. Peas subsequently became part of the diet throughout Asia and Europe.
Lentils are hardly what you'd call newcomers, but scientists have been unable to pinpoint their origins in parts of the Middle East any earlier than 6750 B.C., a good 3,000 years later, in Qalat Jarmo, in northeastern Iraq. By 5500 B.C. lentils were cultivated in western Turkey and in Anatolia. They were grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Around 800 B.C. (practically yesterday) Jacob's biblical pottage, for which he sold his birthright, is thought to have been a lentil stew.
Vestiges of fava or broad beans have been found in Neolithic excavations in Switzerland and in the ruins of Troy. Remains of chickpeas have been identified in Sicily and Persia. At least 4,000 years ago, favas, lentils, and chickpeas were buried in Egyptian tombs.
All the while, from Manchuria southward, the ancient Chinese were busy with soybeans, which were first cultivated around the Chang period, about 1500 B.C. Chinese Buddhist missionaries who arrived in Japan around the sixth century brought soybeans with them. The Japanese took as readily to the soybeans as to the religion.
At the same time, oceans and continents apart in the Americas, the haricot bean, a vast category including all the different kinds of kidney beans, lima beans, and runner beans, was becoming a staple crop, adapting to climates as diverse as the cold and damp of New England and the unrelenting desert of parts of Mexico. Evidence of bean crops dating back to 7000 B.C. has been found in parts of Mexico and Peru.
Botanically, the various kinds of beansthe lentil, the broad bean, the chickpea, the soybean and the haricotare categorized differently. But as food, these essential, nutrient-rich plant seedsbecause that's really all they areare used almost identically.
The ancient farmers who started planting and harvesting their beans, whether in Andean highlands near Cuzco, along the Yangtze River, in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, or in the shadow of Mont Blanc, were also growing grain: corn, rice, wheat, millet, barley.
Unlike the beans, however, the various grains cannot easily be substituted one for another. Nonetheless, beans and grains perform in tandem, like Fred and Ginger. The amino acids, notably lysine and tryptophan, in beans complement those in grains to result in complete proteinone of the most essential nutrients and a building block of life and growth. How did ancient people know to grow both and eat them together? To this day, students of culinary history marvel at such instinctively sensible, nutrient-dense combinations as rice and lentils, succotash of corn and limas, and couscous with chickpeas.
In the Old Testament, the bread that Ezekiel was required to eat during a time of penitence was perfectly balanced. "Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barleys, and beans, and lentils, and millet and vetches, and make thee bread thereof" is the verse.
The North American Indians who planted the "Three Sisters," an intermingling of beans, corn, and squash in the same plot of land, were also practicing sound agriculture, cultivating three crops that were perfect complements. The beans twined on the cornstalks, which shaded them, and the squash grew between the rows, suppressing weeds. Each crop used the soil and its nutrients differently, and, when harvested together, they provided a balanced diet, one that could be stored for winter and sustain the community in times of drought.
Once the age of exploration began, and the exchange of crops between hemispheres of the Earth accelerated, from the New World to the Old World and back again, the possibilities for more grain and bean combinations increased exponentially. Mexican rice and beans, Cuban moros y cristianos, the hoppin' John of black-eyed peas and rice favored in the American South, and Venetian pasta e fagiole are some of the newer recipes in the world's repertory.
THE BIG THREE
Worldwide, the most important bean is the soybean. Unlike other types of beans, its use as food depends largely on its magic versatility, an ability to be transformed into something other than a mere plant seed. Instead of a plate of soybeans, millions of Asians depend on soybean sprouts, soybean curd, soybean milk, soybean noodles, soybean oil, and fermented soybean sauces like miso and soy sauce.
The Chinese and Japanese consume the most soybeans. Western travelers to the Far East, from about the thirteenth century on, all noted the soybean-based foods that were staples of the diet. But even in times of severe deprivation and famine, like during and after the Civil War in the South, or the two World Wars in Europe, Westerners did not sow their fields with soybeans, beans that are easy to plant and harvest because of their relatively brief, fifteen-week growing season. Soybeans were not cultivated on a large scale in the West until after World War II, first in the United States, then in Europe.
People consume more soybeans than any other bean on Earth. And today, the United States is the world's number one soybean producer. Vegetable protein, as in those imitation bacon bits, is made from soybeans. And unlike many kinds of beans, some strains of soybeans have a relatively high oil content. Soybean oil is a common, mostly monounsaturated cooking oil.
But as much as Americans may enjoy fake bacon on the salad bar, or prefer too much soy sauce on their "Chinese" fried rice, American soybeans are grown mainly to feed livestock, to export to China, and to use in manufacturing plastics and glue. You'll find soybean, not flageolet or cannellini, futures on commodities markets around the world.
Haricots (Phaseolus vulgaris, Phaseolus lunatus, Phaseolus coccineus, Phaseolus acutifolius)
The New World haricot bean gradually began taking over the plates of bean eaters worldwide, starting in the sixteenth century, when the conquistadors and other explorers began bringing them back to Europe. Christopher Columbus may have noticed them growing on Caribbean islands, but it was Cortés and his invaders of Mexico, Jacques Cartier in Quebec, and Cabeza de Vaca in Florida in 1528 who documented beans and carried them home. The name "haricot" is a corruption of the Aztec word ayacotl.
Within a century the haricot replaced the fava, or broad bean, as the favorite on European tables. Haricots first appealed to the Italians, especially the Tuscans, who came to be called mangiafagioli, or "bean eaters." (Similarly, the Papago tribe of the Sonora Desert in Arizona were called "tepary bean eaters.")
Catherine de Médicis is said to have brought haricots to France when she went there to wed Henri II in 1533. But, except in Provence, where the beans were quickly appreciated and became a luxury, the French took almost as long to acquire a taste for haricots as for potatoes, neither of which had much impact in their kitchens until the mid-eighteenth century. Plus ça change.
England is now the world's biggest market for canned baked beans (a dumbing down of the haricot). Heinz sells 1.5 million cans of them a day there.
That haricots were cultivated by Native Americans in a wide range of climates has led botanical archaeologists to conclude that by the time the Europeans arrived, the various Native American communities already knew which beans grew successfully in their regions and had long been practicing plant selection. Today in Mexico, about 2.5 million acres are planted with beans.
Common haricots (Phaseolus vulgaris) are the most varied category of beans. They grow on vines that creep along the ground or can be trained up a pole. Some are low bush plants. The family ranges from the skinny, deep green haricot vert of France, with microscopic seeds, which is meant to be eaten fresh, pod and all, to the giant, fat pods of runner beans containing a few enormous and colorful seeds.
Haricots range in color from white to black, with every possible shading in between. The pods in which they grow are as varied as the seeds they contain, coming in an array of tints and shapes. Some of the beans are marbleized, spotted, or otherwise beautifully patterned. They can be tiny, the size of grains of rice like the minuscule white rice beans, or they may be plump and fat. In Peru, a type of haricot called nuñas grows at high altitudes and is cooked by roasting because water boils too slowly. These beans burst open like popcorn and taste like peanuts.
Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus), which are named for Lima, Peru, and are known to have been cultivated in coastal Peru since 6000 B.C., are thought by some scientists to have originated in Guatemala. One strain, the small-seeded lima, may have come from Mexico. They differ in shape and chemistry from haricots. Large-seeded limas are also distinct from small-seeded ones (baby limas). And all contain potentially toxic cyanogens, which are destroyed by cooking. Fresh sprouted limas are a no-no.
Runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus), so-named botanically for the typical bright red (cochineal) of the plant's flowers, look something like lima beans but are invariably huge and dazzlingly colored or marbleized.
Finally, there are tepary beans (Phaseolus acutifolius), many varieties of which resemble kidney beans. But they are botanically distinct because they grow in desert climates. They have long taproots. And, because of their adaptability, they are now of great interest to plant geneticists.
Fava Beans (Vicia faba)
When haricot beans from the Americas started showing up in Europe in the sixteenth century, the once predominant fava, or broad bean, a vegetable of great antiquity known to have been gathered and eaten in the Stone Age, began to lose ground. The need to peel favas' leathery skins makes it clear why the thinner-skinned haricots from the New World replaced them so easily.
Nonetheless, the taste for favas, which Americans are finally beginning to acquire, has been maintained. They were first cultivated in the Mediterranean basinin Sicily as early as 4800 B.C., according to cave excavations, and perhaps even earlier in Egypt. A hardier, smaller-seeded strain grew in colder climates in the Caucasus. There has been evidence of fava beans in most Neolithic settlements throughout Europe, as far north as Scotland and Sweden.
The Roman family name Fabius is derived from faba, which evolved, in Italian, into "fava." (Curiously, another famous Roman family, that of Cicero, comes from cicer, or "chickpea.") In French, these beans are known as fèves. And the Egyptian brown beans called ful are a kind of small fava.
The first recorded mention of three-field crop rotation, with crops planted in two fields, allowing one to remain fallow, was in A.D.765. Fava beansor another pulse like peas or lentilswere typically cultivated on one of the three fields, and grain was planted in the second field. Previously, the system of two-field planting was used, with each field fallow every other year. Charlemagne required that several rows of broad beans and chickpeas be grown in all gardens.
Though not as showy as haricots, favas, which come in shades from pale celadon and gold to deep purple, are among the few beans eaten fresh as well as dried. The dried beans were not only useful as storage food, they were also ground into a meal to make bread. In winter, during the Middle Ages in Europe, dried broad beans and lentils were about the only vegetables available for the masses. Beans were welcome in the diet because they could absorb the salt from the bits of preserved bacon or salted fish cooked with them. Though fava beans were eaten mostly dried, sometimes the young shoots of the plant were added to a dish to give it a fresher taste.
Some people of European descent have a genetic disorderknown in lay terms as favismwhich results in a severe anemic reaction to the bean. Some are so sensitive that even the pollen of the plants can cause distress or a sudden severe respiratory problem. Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, was perhaps the most famous victim of this malady.
BEANS IN MYTH AND MAGIC, LITERATURE AND ART
We all know of the magic bean from the Brothers Grimm. Jack, instructed to sell his mother's cow to get money for food, trades it instead for a handful of beansmagical beans. His mother tosses them out the window, and the next day the beanstalk, a spectacular route to the sky and great riches, appears.
A mere pea can test a princess. And even today, to guarantee luck and wealth in the new year, black-eyed peas are eaten in the South, and lentils go into the dish of choice in Rome.
But beans have also been the symbol of the food of the poor. In the play Plutus by Aristophanes, when a man has acquired wealth, he is described as "not liking lentils anymore."
Beans have symbolized the embryo, growth, and life. And since ancient times, they have been invested with supernatural powers. The Chaldeans believed the dead returned to Earth reborn as fava beans. Lentils were among the treasures buried with the pharoahs of Egypt because they were believed to help convey the soul to the heavens. Pliny the Elder recorded the belief, in ancient Rome, that the souls of the departed resided in beans. Indeed, throughout the ages, various philosophers and mystics, including the followers of Pythagoras, forbade the eating of beans as blasphemy, a desecration of the souls of one's ancestors. (His genetic intolerance of fava beans might also have been a factor.)
Even the flatulence caused by eating beans was thought by some, Plato among them, to be evidence that one had eaten a living soul!
A Greek and Roman practice for ridding a house of ghosts was to take a mouthful of beans and spit them out. Romans placated ghosts by walking through a house at midnight strewing favas behind. In Japan there is a similar rite at the beginning of the new year to banish demons.
The Greeks dedicated a temple to Kyanites, the god of beans, on the sacred road to Eleusis and held a bean festival called Kyampsia. The Roman version was Fabaria.
Many Native American nations turned to legend to explain the "Three Sisters," the practical method of planting beans, corn, and squash together. They tell of Selu Tyva, the woman whose name means "corn bean." This figure, the mythical source of these foods, brings the seeds forth from her body.
In addition to their supernatural role, beans had a practical function in ancient Greece and Rome, as tokens for the election of magistrates, with one white bean in a bowl of dark ones. When Plutarch advised, "abstain from beans," it had nothing to do with diet. He meant keep out of politics. In the Chinese game fan-tan, beans are used as counters.
According to Pliny, when the obelisk that now stands in St. Peter's Square in Rome was brought from Egypt as booty, it was buried in the hold of a ship protected by 2,880,000 Roman pounds of Egyptian lentils.
In Rome, at the time of the Saturnalia, the master of the revels was chosen by drawing beans, also the white one from a jar of dark ones. This has translated into a Christian custom for Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, when the person who receives the fava bean or, in France, the fève, in the cake, is crowned the king or queen of the festivities, a tradition that is still maintained with the gâteau de fèves.
A crock of beans, in colonial New England, set to cook slowly helped the faithful observe the Sabbath when no work could be done. Cholent, a Jewish bean dish, accomplishes the same purpose among the Orthodox today. And in Japan, the rice served at weddings is steamed with adzuki beans to tint it a festive pink color.
Before she died, Christophe de Menil, a patron of the arts who lived in Houston, hoped to commission the sculptor Richard Serra to do a monumental work in the shape of a bean.
Of a totally different dimension, but similarly inspired by the lovely shape of a bean, is the silver jewelry designed for Tiffany by Elsa Peretti. How many women today wear these beans around their necks or on their ears as tokens of some kind?
Though beans continue to sustain the poor in many developing nations, they are acquiring a new image on the contemporary American table. We eat beans because we choose to, not because we must in order to survive. And now that the cuisines of Mexico, Peru, the Middle East, and Asia, plus the more rustic culinary traditions of France, Italy, and Spain, are tempting cooks and chefs, beans are finally being added to our typical meat-and-potatoes or meat-and-pasta diet. Like the whole grains that were first embraced during the early days of the hippie movement, beans are now appreciated by sophisticated palates in high-priced restaurants.
In addition, Americans who are aware of the importance of a balanced diet, consuming enough fiber, and reducing the amount of meat they eat are starting to acquire a taste for beans.
Still, the affluence in the United States today is reflected by a decrease in bean consumption. In the 1960s, Americans ate about 71/2 pounds of beans a year, less than a cup a week. By 1984, it was down to 5 pounds per person, an all-time low.
But there are signs of change. Lately there has been a newfound interest in bean-based classics like hummus, cassoulet, cholent, and even baked beans. And the results are being felt on the farm and in food shops.
Where there were only a few kinds of dried beans sold, usually kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, navy beans and split peas, some markets now carry more than a dozen. We can remember, not long ago, searching high and low for some dried Italian cannellini beans. Now we buy them in our supermarkets.
And as with all kinds of other foods, the interest in new, heretofore untried varieties of beans has led to a constantly increasing demand for heirlooms.
What is an heirloom? In agriculture it's a variety that has been rescued from extinction. For example, there are Department of Agriculture records showing that in 1909 there were 7,000 different kinds of apples grown in the United States. By the mid-1980s there were fewer than 1,000. Some specialized growers are trying desperately to maintain stocks of those that still exist.
It's the same with beans. And there is much more to it than merely bringing novelty and variety to the table. Instinctively, ancient populations like the Incas knew that it was important to rotate their crops to guarantee successful harvests year after year. It is often monoculturethe planting of a single cropthat causes famine, because when the crop fails there is nothing. You need biodiversity to survive.
By not putting all your eggs, or seeds, in one basket, a blight will not affect every plant, as it did during the Irish potato famine 100 years ago. Genetic variety in potato planting might have prevented that disaster.
But unlike preindustrial farming communities, modern agriculture depends on hybrids bred for high yields that require chemical fertilizers and pesticides to meet production levels. And as these crops are planted on acre after acre, they dominate the market and leave no room for less standardized but perhaps hardier varieties of yore.
Inevitably, there has been a backlash. Just as the interest in sustainability and organics has started to revolutionize the way crops are being grown. Today in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, ancient Andean crops, including beans, are regarded as natural resources. In the United States, the desire to retrieve the varieties of the past, and their flavors, inspired a grassroots movement. Small growers around the country now specialize in heirlooms. Some, like Seed Savers Exchange, develop the seed stock. Others, often small farmers like Elizabeth Berry struggling to stay a step ahead of encroaching development, cultivate and sell the specialized harvest, finding that such crops are often more lucrative than the run-of-the-mill stuff they used to plant. Chefs delight in offering plates of heirloom tomatoes in a dazzling palette of shades and sizes. Similarly, old-fashioned beans like soldiers, scarlet runners, calypsos, and Appaloosas, that were virtually nonexistent on store shelves, are becoming increasingly available. The only problem is that their often fanciful names have not been standardized, which makes buying them occasionally confusing.
These beans are not only gorgeous to look at, with their striking patterns and colors, they also add a delectable change of pace at the table. And in appreciating them, we all profit from a better environment, better nutrition, and better tastes.
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