Cooking With Beans a Staple of Farm Life

Wealth of bean varieties helps keep this nutritional wonder on everyone's table.

Green bean

Beans are a very important source of nutrition for families on American farms.

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I’ve never added up the total poundage of beans we eat at our house, but I’m pretty sure we’re way over the national average of 6.4 pounds per person.

My wife subscribes to the theory that the start of ham-and-bean season coincides with the first game of preseason football. Never mind that it’s August, and temperatures are still in the 90s. Cooler weather is just around the corner.

Truth be told, you’ll find beans in our kitchen nearly year-round. In the summer, we feast on baked beans with barbecued ribs, three-bean salad with fried chicken, and green beans cooked with bacon to accompany a pot roast. I’m perfectly content with a hot dog and cold pork and beans served straight from the can. When my wife sends me out to a Mexican restaurant for enchiladas, I don’t dare come home without a side of refried beans. And when the weather turns cold, it’s not uncommon to find a pot of chili simmering on our stove.

I suppose our taste for beans might have come from being raised on Nebraska farms where Great Northern and pinto beans were grown as cash crops. In the winter, my mother would often have a pot of ham and beans ready when my dad and I came in from feeding cattle. When you’ve spent the morning shoveling snow out of feed bunks or breaking ice on livestock water tanks, nothing warms you up quite like a steaming plate of ham and beans and a big slab of warm corn bread.

All jokes from the Mel Brooks movie, Blazing Saddles, aside, beans are one of the healthiest, most nutritionally complete foods available. Nutritionists call them an inexpensive source of complex carbohydrates and protein, providing high levels of iron, magnesium, zinc and potassium. And just one cup supplies up to 16 grams of protein, 40 to 48 grams of carbohydrates, and as much dietary fiber as eight slices of whole grain bread.

Like the proverbial apple a day, beans may even help keep the doctor away. According to the American Dry Bean Board, medical studies have shown that eating beans may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Other studies suggest that beans are useful in managing diabetes, may cut risks for high blood pressure and may help in losing weight.

Dry beans, like corn and potatoes, originated right here in the Western Hemisphere. Unlike the soybean, which came from China, and the fava bean, which originated in the eastern Mediterranean, the first dry, edible beans have been traced to Central and South America. By the time the first European settlers showed up in North America, Native Americans had been growing and dining on beans for at least 7,000 years.

“The natives had developed so many varieties of dry beans by the time the Europeans arrived that there is scarcely a bean color or color combination known today that was not known by pre-contact Native Americans,” says Wesley Greene, garden historian at Colonial Williamsburg, in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Chances are you’ll find an eye-opening assortment of beans on the shelves of your local supermarket. There are the Great Northern and pinto beans most of us are familiar with, as well as navy, black, light red kidney, dark red kidney, large lima, baby lima, small white, blackeye, pink, small red and cranberry beans.

If you like to experiment in your garden, try growing one of the many heirloom bean varieties available through several online seed suppliers. Sustainable Mountain (859-986-3204) offers nearly 30 heirloom bean varieties, most of them collected from the Appalachian area of North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. Heirloom Seeds offers 60 varieties of heirloom beans (724-663-5356, no phone orders), and Rancho Gordo sells more than 20 heirloom varieties (707-259-1935). Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (417-924-8917) also has a wonderful assortment.

Wesley Greene, whose historical report on the bean varieties grown by early colonists in North America is posted online, says several heirloom varieties of snap and shell beans are raised in the gardens at Colonial Williamsburg.

“We raise the Case-knife bean, which is synonymous with the White Dutch of the 18th century and was the premier snap variety,” he says. “We also have a Turkey bean, which may have been the original snap bean. We raise the Canterbury bean, one of the most commonly cited shell bean varieties in 18th-century Virginia, and the Refugee bean, probably the same as the Valentine bean from 18th-century Philadelphia. The Mohawk is an early 19th-century bean and one of the first dwarf snap varieties. And the Amish Knuttle is a Cutshort variety similar to the Cornfield bean of the 18th and early 19th centuries.”

Connoisseurs say heirloom bean varieties offer a surprising range of tastes and textures, varying from sweet or meaty to buttery, nutty or creamy. They add unique flavor to soups and stews, salads, enchiladas, pastas and baked bean dishes.

Among the heirloom varieties available for sale are the ‘Mayflower’ and ‘Jacob’s Cattle,’ said to have been brought to the New World by the Pilgrims. The ‘Anasazi’ is reputed to be a direct descendent of beans grown 1,500 years ago by cliff dwellers in the Southwest region of the United States. And ‘Soldier Beans’ date back to the early 1800s.

Even the popular Great Northern bean is steeped in history. This widely grown commercial variety was developed by nationally renowned seedsman and plant breeder Oscar H. Will, who propagated the variety from a bag of beans given him by a Hidatsa Indian named Son of Star in Bismarck, Dakota Territory, in 1896. And today it is still among GRIT editor Oscar H. Will III’s (aka Hank) favorite dry beans – that’s what he says anyway.

For a hearty taste of American history, why not try a new bean dish for your table tonight?

Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet from Parkville, Missouri, where he enjoys finding beans on the dinner table.