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A ubiquitous food of subsistence that doesn't need to be fancy to be good.
As a kid, I hated beans. They came served with white rice and pork chops, the red variety only. This was a meal inspired by Puerto Rican comida criolla, and I rejected it as depressing. There weren’t too many foods I found depressing, but the list also included meatloaf, which my brother and I would moan about and eat in tiny little forced bites. This sad energy all had to do with color, with expectations, with a child’s mind. I didn’t particularly care for pork chops, though at that time it had nothing to do with their origin as a pig’s body; there was just a preference for other cuts. Pork loin, pork ribs, prosciutto, pancetta—yes. Eating was and is the highlight of my days; I want always to feel a spark when I look at my plate, and this dish had never provided such excitement. Another way to describe this response to a home-cooked meal made by a mother who worked full-time is spoiled.
What foods would I call depressing nowadays? Definitely still meatloaf. Maybe a bad salad from a middling restaurant, limp lettuce tasting of the cold air of the refrigerator and dressed in something thick and sweet that was poured from a bottle purchased in bulk. What wouldn’t I call depressing? Rice and beans. I’ve seen the light, and when I gave up meat, it was easy to find a spark with even the most mundane varieties—there’s a reason they’re referred to in science and agriculture contexts as “common bean,” from the Latin Phaseolus vulgaris—including the rejected kidney beans of my youth.
While I got into beans for nutritional reasons and their culinary diversity, in recent years they've become somewhat of a gastronomic status symbol. For big food personalities, using beans from companies like Rancho Gordo is a mark of pride that is loudly proclaimed in a way meat or other foodstuff origins are not, even leading to a lot of merch, as Tammie Teclamarian chronicled at Gawker. (I did have a limited run of “SUBSIDIZE BEANS” shirts myself.)
What does it mean for a food of ubiquity and subsistence across the Global South to be cool to U.S. tastemakers? Does it really affect how people eat in a way that leads to real change—say, policy that supports legume farming rather than beef production? You know the answer to that already (“no”), but it’s still worth looking into what beans mean, and what it means that this deeply significant food—culturally, ecologically—must beg for attention in the United States. Basically: Why make beans a point of status anxiety? Isn’t the important thing that we just eat beans?
In his exhaustive book Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture, and Identity, food historian Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra attempts to explain why the kidney bean, or habichuela rosada or colorada, has become simply the habichuela of Puerto Rican cuisine. He begins by demonstrating how essential to local identity it has become—inextricable, even, especially because the preference for this color sets the archipelago apart from neighboring nations such as Cuba or Venezuela, where black beans are preferred.
The indigenous people were the ones who realized beans were good, and grew well among cassava and corn. These were all key to survival under the harsh conditions of Spanish colonization. Enslaved Africans introduced Vigna unguiculata, or cowpea, and it too became a staple. Combined with the Spanish taste for chickpeas and lentils, there were legumes on tables in every type of household. But it was the indigenous and African peoples who kept the bean crops alive and thriving. Eventually, it would become common to have two crops of red and white beans per year, in spring and fall, and a winter harvest of gandules, or pigeon peas (learn to love them if you don’t already, because they’re a hot-weather, drought-tolerant crop). The preference for red beans, despite lower yield and being less disease-resistant than white beans, could be explained by their flavor and volume. They’ve got more going on, and they fill you up.
Even though throughout the centuries it seems there are more white beans by volume grown on the archipelago, they’re less commonly eaten, with Ortiz noting, “at the start of the 1930s, research uncovered that, during a seven-day period, 150 families cooked red beans on 137 occasions. In contrast, white beans and garbanzos were prepared only 29 and 24 times, respectively.” This, despite that around that time, 50 percent of the plantings were of white beans. (A fun fact from 2000? “Although Puerto Ricans represent roughly 1% of the U.S. population, they consume 3.1% of the common and lima beans in the U.S.” Beans need to become cool for whom?)
The habichuelas blancas are the ones I’ve grown accustomed to finding most locally, whether at the farmers’ market or through the app PRoduce, and now I finally understand why: Then and now, they simply grow better under the conditions. Usually they’re shelled and frozen, not dried, and cook rather quickly. I asked my friend, chef and writer César Ramón Pérez Medero, what role white beans played in his family meals growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
“For rosadas, they were cooked with tomato sauce, jamón de cocinar, and calabaza,” he says. “Blancas we wouldn’t add tomato sauce and would add potato and salchichón, the fat farmers sausage with peppercorns in it.” Rosadas were called simply “habichuelas,” but white beans were “habichuelas blancas.”
The story of beans in Puerto Rico is significant not just because I live here and because it colors my own personal bean history, but because this is representative of legume adaptations—agriculturally, culturally, and culinarily—that have occurred throughout the world.
A report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. from 1999 calls the common bean “the most important food legume for direct consumption in the world,” for its versatility (more than 40,000 varieties), adaptation to diverse conditions, and ability to grow basically anywhere. While temperate regions can have bigger yields, the fact that beans in Latin America and Africa are a crop that can be grown without big mechanical inputs means they’re ideal for subsistence among small farmers, and are often harvested and prepared by women.
A farmer told me at the market this past weekend that beans “aren’t sustainable,” and what she meant was they’re too labor-intensive for the price you can charge, because of the shelling. How to make a sustainable protein truly sustainable?
“The crop offers a low-cost alternative to beef and milk,” says the report. “One hectare planted to traditional bean varieties in Latin America produces 123 kg of protein compared to 3-4 kg for beef cattle on the same amount of land.” Yet not as much money is poured into bean research as into cash crops, like coffee (this could be changing, though hopefully in a way that doesn’t see small farmers in the Global South dependent on multinationals for seeds and fertilizers). Beans are deeply significant to survival everywhere, as a nutritionally near-perfect food.
One company that’s trying to make beans cool but not too cool is Primary Beans. Lesley Sykes, who co-founded with her sister, comes from a family of fresh produce distributors and studied regional food systems at Tufts University, where she worked with Red Tomato, an organization that connects farmers and markets.
She’s focusing on regional varieties of beans that thrive in specific environments, and one way she’s differentiating the product is including freshness dates on bags and giving buyers guides for how to cook them in an Instant Pot or pressure cooker. Because while smaller-batch beans have become cool in culinary circles as a rarefied product, that’s not the demographic Sykes wants to appeal to: She just wants dried beans of high quality to be more accessible to anyone looking to bring new beans into their diet, and has some standard guidelines for sourcing. (At $7 to $11 per pound, depending on the bean, they of course are still fielding complaints; for comparison, retail ground beef was $4.79 per pound in May, an artificial cost based on subsidies that don’t account for its ecological impacts.)
“You can have your people that are obsessed with brothy beans and I mean, it's all good, right?” she tells me. “It's good for us, good for sales. But we're not a trendy brand and I don't aspire to be one. One of my big moments for even just understanding the opportunity with beans was just the whole Instant Pot thing.”
For Sykes, the important thing is to try to convince folks that beans are not an event—because for most people around the world, they’re not. They can be a pretty standard item, whether because you have time to let them boil (I don’t soak), use a pressure cooker, or just get canned. Quality matters, sure, because you want to eat something that tastes good and ideally saw the farmer compensated well. My pantry is packed with nice Primary Beans (because they sent me some; they don’t yet ship to Puerto Rico) and—I’ll be honest—sacks of Goya garbanzo beans from the supermarket in the plaza. I usually have local white beans, too—or I buy a can in a pinch. I do not add a lot of aromatics to my pot when I cook them, because it feels wasteful to me, just salt and a bit of olive oil; I add flavor later.
It’s just about eating beans, because they’re a perfect food nutritionally, there are so many options for varieties and preparations, and they’re where we need to go ecologically. And many people in the world have known that for centuries. (If you need a book to get you going, try Joe Yonan’s Cool Beans: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking with the World's Most Versatile Plant-Based Protein.)
So much literature on beans tells you statistics are “vague” and “tracking the origin on the…market is challenging.” This is because beans are such good intercroppers, hidden among other foods that get a higher market value, because they provide nitrogen to the soil, helping everything grow. That’s how they’ve become a staple food, in addition to their nutritional profile, ability to fill folks up, and flavor. They could become more commonplace on everyone’s plates, everywhere, in every form, and there’s probably a farmer in your region, wherever you are, growing them and perhaps unsure whether they could prove actually sustainable.
And I hope your kids like them, though as I prove, they’ll probably come around regardless.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will be an appreciation of another humble ingredient, one I often eat with beans: cabbage. See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
I wrote a little essay for Recipes for Radical Hospitality, a zine for the Allied Media Conference produced in conjunction with everyone’s favorite mag, Whetstone. It’s downloadable as a PDF for $5 with a long list of fabulous contributors.
All this bean stuff plus forthcoming fall cookbooks in preparation for this newsletter’s inaugural seasonal book preview! Coming late August or early September (hey, that’s a movie). I’ll be including cookbooks, fiction, and nonfiction, so if you want to get a galley my way (physical preferred—my eyes!—digital accepted), let me know.
Above is a white bean purée with caramelized onions, taken from the kale-mushroom galette recipe I published for paid subscribers a few weeks ago.