Heirloom beans have yet to reach the popularity of, say, heirloom tomatoes, which have seduced us with their odd shapes and their fanciful names such as Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter or Hillbilly Potato Leaf. Yet, beans are a treasure whose value we often don’t recognize. Over 1500 known heirloom varieties present themselves today in various shapes, sizes, and colors but their small stature is misleading for the nutrition they pack, the sustenance they provide, and the flavor they offer are to be enjoyed by even those on the most modest budget. There is much to celebrate when it comes to one of the oldest cultivated heirloom groupsc. As Kentucky heirloom bean and tomato farmer, Bill Best, offers in this short video, “I grow tomatoes for money and I grow beans for love.”
Our history is intertwined with heirloom beans, which originate in Central and South America and were cultivated over 2,300 years ago in North America. Here in the United States they were propagated by many different Native American tribes. Globally available, they find their way in to recipes in Africa, France, the Appalachian and Southern regions of the United States and beyond. Rich in protein and soluble fiber, relatively inexpensive despite the difficulty of harvest and easy to transport, heirloom beans are our dependable hearty staple, good at staving off hunger and extending our budget. For chefs, according to Chef’s Collaborative, a benefit to using heirloom beans is that in colder climates, beans allow a chef to keep their menu “local” when produce is scarce. Another added benefit is that these crops improve the life of the soil by trapping nitrogen from the air if beneficial bacteria are present to grow on the roots and do away with the need for extra fertilizer. Molly Breslin and her father, John, utilized this method of soil amendment when they started their Ottawa, Illinois farm, Breslin Farms. They planted Black Turtle Beans and vastly improved soil composition. The Breslins then kept heirloom beans as part of their offerings and now sell several different varieties to the public.
Distinct flavor and texture
Dependability and usefulness has overshadowed just how delicious and complex heirloom beans can be, though, in part because people are consuming commercial beans which are bred to be tough to withstand mechanical harvesting and cultivated to be uniform in flavor. Bill Best offers this: “[Commercial] beans are no longer a protein food. Beans are just fodder. They are to be eaten for the hulls alone and this is of course very different from…the way that traditional people of the Southern Appalachians want to eat beans. They want a bean that has a real bean in it.” To that end Best has been a tireless advocate for Southern Appalachian foodways, most specifically by farming heirloom beans and in his work as an author, educator, and founder of the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, a nonprofit organization that teaches seed saving and encourages Southern Appalachian people to be proud of their cultural heritage as a way to keep that history alive and to learn how to farm heirloom varieties and make a living from it, Heirlooms beans, then, offer a different and more hopeful story than their commercially-produced kin.
Steve Sando founded Rancho Gordo in 2000 in Napa Valley, California. Rancho Gordo is a specialty producer of heirloom beans and Sando is an evangelist when it comes to promoting their nuanced and complex palatability. He offers a flavor profile of the Rio Zape as “reminiscent of pintos” but also putting forth “a hint of chocolate and a hint of coffee.” This description sounds more appropriate to a craft brewery-produced porter or stout and less like a humble legume. Yet the savory qualities of each bean varies. The flavor of the Brown Tepary Bean, for example, indigenous to the United States, has been described as nutty while the White Tepary Bean tastes slightly sweet. Indeed, flavor is a big part of what beans have to offer and their taste can range from meaty to creamy to earthy. (Read our conversation with Steve on his experience here)
What we lose if a variety goes extinct
Heirloom beans provide unique flavors and textures, so much so that when we are in danger of losing them we lose our cultural heritage also. Robert Moss writes in Serious Eats about the journey of the Southern dish, Hoppin’ John, whose origins are in the African diaspora and whose original recipe consisted of “one pound of bacon, one pint of peas, and one pint of rice.” Hoppin’ John made today with commercial ingredients lacks the distinct texture and complex flavor of historical versions. The dish cannot be made correctly or with any palatableness, he contends, without good quality ingredients. Luckily, organizations such as The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and Anson Mills are committed to saving the South’s culinary heritage and efforts have been made to bring back Carolina Gold Rice and Sea Island Red Peas, both ingredients integral to a more flavorful and historically accurate version of Hoppin’ John.
Heirloom beans are important for so many reasons and amazingly versatile and delicious. Isn’t it time that they share the spotlight with heirloom tomatoes? There’s already a Mortgage Lifter Bean so it looks like they are in good condition to do so.