It’s January, and I’m starting to run out of the beans and peas I bought and froze this summer from the Red Stick Farmers Market.
Every time I pull out a precious pack, I remember sitting in front of my family’s black-and-white television set as a child and dutifully shelling the pride of my father’s garden, purple-hull peas. Those pods were long, bumpy and a rich, deep purple. And sure as Matt Dillon would keep law and order in Dodge City, Daddy’s peas would turn my nails the color of ink. But I didn’t mind (too much). I kept telling myself that stained cuticles were a small price to pay for a creamy, bacon-laced pot of one of my favorite foods — beans.
Beans, peas and lentils all belong to the legume family of plants and are actually pods or seeds that are edible, and are consumed by both humans and animals. Although relatively few are cultivated and marketed, unbelievably, world gene banks hold 40,000 varieties of beans, with more than 130 varieties of green beans alone. Many of this dizzying number of beans look similar, and oftentimes we’re not sure if what we’re eating is a true bean or a pea or a lentil. And because of regional and language differences, some even have two or three names for the same thing.
Numerous ancient cultures depended on beans, including the Egyptians and classical Greeks, with a history of legume consumption going back more than 20,000 years in some Eastern cultures. A couple of older favorites in Europe were smallish, flat lentils, which were eaten in Greece as long as 13,000 years ago. Bumpy, round chickpeas were used in soup in Western Europe in the seventh century B.C., and the fava bean, or broad bean, has been cultivated in the Mediterranean region for so many years that the wild ancestor of our present culinary varieties is now extinct.
When Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean, they were introduced to a whole new slew of beans.
Over 5,000 years ago, Mexican and Peruvian civilizations started cultivating the lima bean and fresh and dry varieties of what is known as the common bean, which includes most American beans, such as kidney beans, black beans and pintos.
Also, in what is now the U.S., Native Americans were growing climbing beans as a companion plant to corn and squash, and together these crops formed the main “three sisters” of agriculture.
Because they were filling, easy to store and cheap, these hardy New World legumes were a hit with Europeans. Dried beans, in particular, became an important ration for sailors, especially with the U.S. Navy in the 19th century, which was when the navy bean received its name.
Beans were pushed as a low-cost source of protein during the Great Depression, and cultivation increased dramatically in the U.S. during World War II, when beans became a staple in military C-rations. After the war, U.S. food relief efforts around the world were boosted and, consequently, so was the nation’s production of dry beans.
Americans eat an average of 7.5 pounds of beans annually, and overall our favorite dry beans are pinto, navy beans, great northern beans, red kidneys and black beans.
Navy beans are most popular in the Midwest and the Northeast, while pintos are consumed most in the West and South. Black-eyed peas are consumed by some in the Northeast but are especially loved here in the South, where the bean came from Africa with the slave trade and where New Year’s would be unlucky without at least one respectable serving.
Fortunately, many heat-loving bean varieties grow just fine here in Louisiana. But even if snap beans, pole beans and butter beans aren’t on your spring planting list, a rainbow of frozen, canned and dried beans is as close as your neighborhood supermarket.
And when summer rolls around, I will again find a farmers market that sells fresh beans and peas, including purple-hulls that are mercifully shelled.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is editor of “The Southern Table” cookbook series at LSU Press and author of “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: Egerton, John, Southern Food (UNC Press, 1993); usdrybeans.com; “Beans, One of the First Cultivated Crops,” foodreference.com; “A Selective History of Beans,” republicofbeans.com; Breeding Better Beans, ars.usda.gov.