Once I started looking at heirloom beans, I couldn’t stop. Thankfully, unlike jewels, this is a fairly modest addiction. And the interesting thing is that now that I have acquired all of these beautiful beans, I don’t even want to eat them. I want to use them to create art like the mosaic in Tepozlan made solely of beans and grains.
In January, Pitts and I decided to add beans to our dinners almost every night. I ran through the usual dishes quite quickly. But several years ago I had found a beautiful bag of beans that looked like the hide of a horse, with white background and black and brown markings. I wanted to find them again and so I started looking for “heirloom beans” all over the country.
[Top Left: Organic Black Turtle, Organic Red Pearl, Organic Pinto, Organic Anasazi, Organic Jackson Wonder Beans; Bottom Left: Brown Tepary, Avocote Negro, Mayocoba Bean, Florida Butter Bean]
What are heirloom vegetables? Well, food production as we know it today is streamlined. Companies find the best-selling, easiest to store, easiest to grow vegetables and they essentially breed them for characteristics that make them amenable to the large scale commerce that we use today for a food supply chain. But somewhere in the process of us letting other people put food before us, we lost all contact with regional and historical plantings. What your grandmother grew in her garden is not what you will find at the grocery store today. And quickly, whole lines of plant genetics get taken out of the food system. Heirloom vegetables are the old style plants and seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation and have not really been altered by humans. They are open-pollinated, not hybrids. And they are, generally speaking, types that have been grown since mid-last-century and before. I have no problem with hybrids and the practice of making plants more durable or forgiving, but I surely do not want us to lose the wonderful old varieties in the process.
I get the notion that it is more profitable to grow a whole lot of three kinds of things instead of a tiny bit of 100 kinds of things. I get it. To me, the emphasis should be on getting us, the consumers, to create demand for more varieties. The problem is, I scarcely knew they existed. So this is partly an exercise in self-education. And, I’m bringing you along for the ride.
Thank goodness there are people who have fond memories of the past. Nostalgia is a powerful thing. The very drive to frugality and self sufficiency that led people to have vegetable gardens is the same drive that caused those same people to save some seeds for the next year’s garden, thereby ensuring that local and regional seeds were still in existence. How many years would it take for this diversity to disappear completely. Perish the thought? Think of potatoes. We got perilously close to only having russets available. But “foodies” and farmers started popping up with purple potatoes and fingerling potatoes and causing people to re-learn that there are other potatoes to be had. Gardeners and food people, chefs and historians, small farmers…these are really the people who keep us all from accidentally letting go of our heritage and plant diversity completely.
Think of the beans in the grocery store: navy, great northern, black, pinto and lima. That is just about it. When I started looking around at the specialty farmers, though, what I found was a literal rainbow of colors and myriad shapes. If you are a cook, you should be inspired. But, frankly, we should all be buying a few bags of these every year if for no other reason than to guarantee that these things continue to exist. We all get very emotional over the notion of permanently losing animal species to progress and habitat loss and over-consumption, but somehow we don’t even think about the notion that, regarding beans, these lovely little bits of wonder could cease to exist if it weren’t for a few small farms that stubbornly continue to grow the old varieties.
I want to learn more. I want to know who is growing beans in Texas, and what the interesting varieties are in the gardens of people who are still growing the things that their grandparents grew. My search is just starting and it is wide. I ordered beans from Purcell Mountain Farms in Idaho and from Rancho Gordo in Napa. There is another outfit called Zürsun that has a wonderful array of beans but I think they are more of a wholesaler. I have contacted them and look forward to getting some of their beans. I also bought a wonderful bag of field peas from Anson Mills, and they have many offerings that are worth looking into. Though, as you would suspect, shipping can be a significant expense, so perhaps go in with a few others and order a lot, or think strategically about what you want and order precisely what you need. If you order from Anson Mills, take my word that you “NEED” their cornmeal too. Finally, make sure to consider Mohr-Fry Ranches Heirloom Beans. They too have a lovely selection, although I have not had the pleasure of ordering them yet.
But what I’d really like to do is divide the bags up and give them to gardeners or farmers. How fun it would be to have these wonderful things growing around us. How neat would it be to create an edible landscape?
For gardeners, these seed beans are findable. Local Harvest has a collection of farmers that sell interesting old beans for seed. Burpee has an heirloom bean category and you can find some gorgeous seed beans. I think the most interesting varieties are the ones available to gardeners. Gardeners can buy a packet of seeds from another gardener, a seed saver program or a small farm, whereas a farm growing a sufficient amount of beans to sell commercially is a much bigger undertaking.
But for cooks, the hunt is on. A lot of pinto beans are grown in New Mexico. I caught a bag of Casserole Pintos at Wal-Mart last week and I thought they were lovely, too. I want to know if you have resources. This can be kind of like my post on leaf lard. If you know a farmer that is selling heirloom beans, let’s share that information here. My sense is that Rancho Gordo is making beans cool, if you will. They are truly gift-worthy foods. I gave a spare bag of Rancho Gordo’s to my friend and photographer Robert Strickland last week over a BBQ lunch at Lockhart and I’m telling you, he was touched. So to folks who know what these jewels are, this is a way to give a gift that will make our food world far more interesting. Because, if there is a market for heirloom beans and organic beans, folks, people will grow them. And if farmers grow them, we ensure bio-diversity and, frankly, we are buying insurance that our food supply will not be too very top heavy on one or two varieties making us all vulnerable to nasty little historical nightmares like the Irish Potato famine.
Obviously there was a lot going on in that situation, but the bottom line is that relying on a smaller and smaller number of plant species for a larger and larger amount of our diet is kind of stupid. Portfolio diversification works for the financial world…it works for gardens and societies, too. Part of the equation though, is for us to not turn up our noses at the new (old) varieties but to support them by eating them with gusto. And, I don’t think there is necessarily antagonism between the “efficient” marketing of food and creating a demand for these items. In fact, seeking out these items from specialty retailers and directly from the farmers ensures that a whole different set of people get the benefit of going to the trouble to produce these things. I’m so grateful for the internet, so that we can seek out these items as individuals, from individuals. Otherwise, I’d likely still be in the dark about them.
[Left: This photo shows the difference between RG's Avacote Negro Black Beans and Purcell Mountain's Black Turtle Beans. I suppose I always thought a black bean was a black bean. Not so. The Avacote Negro beans are enormous compared to the compact little turtle beans. And there are many more types of black beans to be had.]
If you know of Texas farmers that are growing old varieties, or if your grandmother has been saving seeds for a totally unique bean that has been in the family for years…let’s hear about it (and get her in touch with a seed saver program so we can ensure that that bean has a future).