More than just a hill of beans

As we approach Columbus Day, we will continue our series on “New World” foods. As I’ve said before, Europe had just 16 plants used as food sources before explorers like Christopher Columbus discovered the bounty of the New World. In addition to tomatoes and potatoes, beans came from the Americas as well.

Native Americans typically planted beans together with squash and corn. The beanstalks grew up around the sturdier corn stalks. And the squash vines spread along the ground to keep out pests and provide shade. Native Americans called these three vegetables “the three sisters” because they worked so well together.

The roots of the bean plants even replenished the soil. In fact, beans are legumes. And they have nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots. So, like the soybean cultivated in ancient China as a “sacred grain,” beans naturally fertilize the soil. Farmers in the U.S. today are rediscovering this highly effective technique.

Explorers brought the common bean back to Europe in the 16th century, where botanists called it Phaseolus vulgaris. Botanists Fuchs and Tragus first described it in 1542. And it quickly spread throughout Europe.

In the first account of the common bean written in Italian, the writer observed, “when eaten, they bloat the stomach.” He suggested cooking beans, “in cow’s milk until they split open. They do not create much disturbance to the stomach when they are eaten with mustard greens and cardoons.”  This observation is consistent with the factors in legumes that can interfere with digestion (when they are not properly prepared).

The Spanish prepared beans with rice to create a nutritious meal that combined protein, carbohydrates, and essential amino acids. And this combination eventually diffused back to the Americas. In Cuba and on the islands of the Caribbean, black beans and rice became quite popular. They called it Moros y Christianos. This name refers back to the Spanish Conquistadors and their encounter with the Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula.

On the mainland of the Americas, they made red beans and rice. Today, this combo is still quite popular in Mexican, Tex-Mex style, and New Orleans style cooking.

The ancient Greeks and Romans grew a different kind of bean called the Vigna sinensis. This bean came from Africa and its name means “Chinese beanstalk.” In Italy, they called it fagiolo dall’occhio or “bean with an eye.” The bean has a unique black streak circling the hilum, or point of attachment to the pod.

In the U.S. today, we call it a “black-eyed pea” or cowpea. How very interesting that the one bean we typically associate with “down home,” American cooking did not originate in the Americas.

In each of these places and points in history, beans served as a valuable food source because of their unique nutritional properties. In fact, we place beans in a different category from grains or other plant-derived food sources.

Like meat, beans are high in protein. In addition, they contain carbohydrates, minerals, and electrolytes. So, in places where meat is scarce, beans play an important role.

You can eat beans two ways. If you harvest a bean when its pod is still young and tender, you eat the entire young bean or pod. In French, this is called mangetout or “eat everything.” In Italian, they call it cornetto or “little horn.” In English, we call them green beans, string beans or French beans.

You can also eat the bean after it completely ripens. In this case, you discard the outer pod or shell. Then you eat the fresh bean inside. Or you can dry it or freeze it for later use.

Like the soybean, beans may contain “anti-tryptic” factors. These factors can interfere with digestion, if not properly prepared. So, always soak dried, mature beans for an extended period. This process rehydrates them. And it also helps leech out the factors that can cause indigestion.