Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Who Doesn't Know Beans

Who Doesn't Know Beans?


When we use the expression, "He doesn't know beans," we imply that the person referred to is very stupid or ignorant. But if Christopher Columbus had been accused of not knowing beans, it would have been quite true, for neither he nor any other Europeans of his day had ever seen or heard of our beans until the Indians in America were found cultivating the plants.

(The only beans known to Europeans prior to the discovery of America were the "broad-beans," the seeds of a leguminous shrubby plant very different from the American beans. The only other Old World beans were the "soy beans" of the Orient.)

Today beans are cultivated in nearly every part of the entire world, other than the Frigid Zones, and are one of the most important of all food-plants. In fact they are almost indispensable, and we wonder how on earth civilized man ever existed without them. What would the miner, the prospector, the lumberman, the sailor, the explorers and men of scores of other vocations do without beans? And what would Boston be without its famous baked beans?

Probably no one knows how many varieties of beans are cultivated today, yet it is doubtful if there is a type of bean, even if there are many new varieties, which was not known to the Indians long before Europeans reached America.

Like the potato, the maize and a number of other important food-plants, the beans had been cultivated for so long that the original wild ancestors of many of the species are unknown. And like so many other valuable food-plants the majority of the cultivated beans were developed by the pre-Incan races of Peru, although others were the result of centuries of cultivation by the Mayas and Aztecs of Central America and Mexico, while some may have been developed from wild species by the Indians of North America. In fact it is impossible to state with certainty just where some of the beans originated, for when the New World was first visited by the Europeans the Indians everywhere "knew beans" and were cultivating numerous varieties. Even in New England the tribes were using the big, flat Lima beans which originated in far-distant Peru (Fig. 1), and were mixing beans whose original home was South America with maize from the same remote source, to form their sauquaquatash or misequatash, which was as pleasing to the palates of the white men as to the Indians, and still remain a most popular dish under the somewhat corrupted name of succotash. And as ancient pottery figures have been found in Peruvian graves, representing men or women holding corn in one hand and beans in the other, it is evident that "corn and beans" was a favorite dish in that country too. (Fig. 2 shows such a jar from [a] tomb at Nasca, Peru)

In addition to the Lima beans and scarlet runners, which have `become the most popular and widely cultivated of the "flat" beans in England, the Indians raised string beans and shell beans of many varieties. They had white beans and black beans, the old-fashioned horticultural beans, the pea beans, and black-eyed beans, the kidney beans and many others, and they knew how to cook their beans in nearly every style known to us today. From the New England Indians, the Colonial housewives learned the art of preparing the baked beans which have made Boston famous. But no beans, baked in white men's ovens in Boston or elsewhere have ever equalled those baked by the Indian squaws in pits in the earth. As they are one of the easiest crops to raise, as well as one of the quickest to mature, beans were planted extensively by the colonists, and Champlain speaks of planting Brazil beans (which was another name for Lima beans) in Maine. And as beans are about the most portable of provisions and will keep almost indefinitely, and bulk for bulk are one of the most nutritious of foods, they became the favorite and standard rations for hunters, trappers, soldiers, and pioneers. Very quickly, too, men who go down to sea in ships, saw the possibilities of this new food supply. To them beans were a veritable godsend, for prior to the "discovery" of America one of the greatest hindrances to long sea voyages had been the lack of adequate provisions. The "green" vegetables and root-foods of Europe, the turnips, beets, carrots, cabbages, onions, and similar food-plants, could not be kept for more than a few weeks. Salt beef and pork, with wheat and barley meal, which were about the only provisions that could be carried on long voyages lacked the essential vitamins to keep the sailers in good condition and were ruined by salt water. But beans revolutionized this. They were rich in the essentials of a nourishing, perfect food; they withstood great changes in temperature and atmospheric conditions; they kept well and could be stowed in a comparatively small space, and they could be cooked in a great variety of ways. As a result, beans became the typical and universal food of mariners, and during the centuries they have held their own in competition with the vast array of canned, preserved and refrigerated provisions of modern times, and still form the real backbone of sailers' fare. For that matter, no other food has ever yet been found or manufactured which takes the place of beans for many purposes and for men of many professions. No prospector or "desert rat" would dream of setting out on his quest for gold or other minerals without his quota of beans. No explorer venturing into the jungles of the southern continent would omit an adequate supply of beans from his provisions, for even if no bean-eater himself, he would find his porters and his Indian or negro boat crew demanded beans as a part of their daily rations. No lumber-jack would be satisfied unless his baked beans were forthcoming, and cow-punchers on a round-up or a "drive" would be almost as much at a loss without their beans as minus their ropes or "chaps." Even armies "march on beans," while in Mexico and other lands they are the national dish, and the bulk of the working class would starve to death if deprived of their frijoles.

Wherever there are civilized human beings, and in many places where there are only savages, we will find beans of some sort being used. They are equally appreciated upon the tables of millionaires and potentates or in the calabashes of the raggedest, most poverty-stricken peons. They thrive and blossom and bear their store of nutritious seeds on the soil of Africa, Asia, Australia, Malaysia, the Orient, or Europe, as prolifically as in Mexico or their native land of the Incas. Throughout the entire world they form a very large part of man's food supply, and throughout Latin America, as well as on some other lands, they rank next to maize as a staple food.

No other plant-food is so rich in protein as are beans, and they supply more nutriment at a lower price than any other food-plant, hence it is no wonder that they have become so universally popular and essential to mankind everywhere. Although we of the north are familiar with a number of varieties of beans, and cultivate a large array of string beans (Fig. 3), wax beans, kidney beans, navy beans, Lima beans and other, there are as many if not more varieties which we seldom or never see. Some of these are quite gorgeously colored, and are handsomely marked with contrasting hues, like those which so fascinated Jack the Giant Killer that he recklessly exchanged his mother's cow for a single bean. Others are tiny things, jet black or rich purple in color, and there are even big flat beans of the Lima bean type with tender delicate edible pods, while others have slender almost cylindrical edible pods with beans which are scarcely larger than BB shot when fully mature and ripe.


Notes

  • This article is from A. Hyatt Verrill, Foods America Gave the World, L. C. Page & Company, Boston, Ma., 1937, Chapter XII, pp. 88-93.
  • Illustrations are by A. Hyatt Verrill.
  • This copy reproduced from www.foodhistory.com/foodnotes/leftovers/beans/beans2.htm

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.