13 Ways of Looking at a Bean

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I

At the heart of French cassoulet and Mexican fajitas, Ethiopian ful medames and Tuscan bean stew, yet it struggles to find a taxonomic home.

All the green and dried, Old or New World beans we eat fall broadly under the Fabaceae family of flowering plants. Though that also includes over 1000 species of acacia tree. Plus we use the word ‘bean’ for the seeds of coffee, vanilla, and cocoa plants.

II

You are just like Jack.

Jack from downstairs?

No, Jack and the Beanstalk.

Ah, the other Jack.

Right. He gave up something, but then he got those magic beans. And then he woke up and there was this big plant outside of his window, full of possibilities and…stuff.

- Phoebe, Monica and Rachel. From Friends, Season One, Episode 4.

III

Green beans are harvested before the plant and its seed-pod have fully developed. The skin surrounding the pod is soft and sweet, eaten raw.

China harvests over 16 million tonnes of green beans every year.

The global total is 20 million. No other country harvests more than 1 million tonnes.

IV

A traditional technique from the Balkans is to use leaves from bean plants, left on the floor beside the bed, to capture bed bugs.

A team of researchers from the Universities of California and Kentucky in 2012 microfabricated surfaces to mimic those of the bean plant, using polymers with material properties similar to plant cell walls.

This could provide a purely physical way of curbing bed bugs and other pesky organisms that have evolved resistance to basically every pesticide we’ve tried to throw at them. The study concluded, however, that the microfabricated surfaces were less effective than the real leaves.

V

You told me it’s been a garbanzo bean kinda day

I’m full of beans, whichever way you say it

But it hasn’t been that way forever

VI

Fidel Castro’s government always prioritised higher education, universal medical care and food stability. That’s why the number of doctors in Cuba has increased over 1000% since 1959, and why Cubans today receive free monthly allowances of beans and rice, a staple meal across the Caribbean.

VII

Before Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century forced them to flee to Turkey and assimilate to Turkish culture to avoid discrimination, the Ubykh people were known for a distinct form of fortune telling practised by Ubykh seers.

This involved throwing beans onto the ground and interpreting the patterns in which they fell.

The precise methods of these Ubykh seers are largely lost to the sands of time – Ubykh was an oral language, and the last native speaker died in 1992 – but similar traditions of favomancy (bean-throwing divination) exist in Iranian and Bosnian culture.

VIII

As delicious as molasses-laced Boston baked beans are, some Bostonians don’t like their city’s seemingly cute nickname, Beantown.

This name was likely borne out of Boston’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade: Boston merchants bought beans grown by slave labour in the Caribbean, shipped them to West Africa, where they were exchanged for more slaves.

IX

Lectin phytohaemagglutinin is a harmful, tasteless toxin found in some types of raw beans. Red kidney beans are especially high in this toxin, which can cause severe food poisoning if not prepared properly.

This is why dried beans need to be soaked, then boiled, for a long time. Tinned beans have already been through this process. In some parts of Africa fermentation is used to break down the toxins and enhance the nutritional value of beans.

X

Alan Kligerman was the first ever winner of the Ig Nobel Prize in 1991. After a decade of research on gas-producing vegetables, Kligerman developed and patented Beano in 1990.

Beano is a dietary supplement that reduces flatulence and bloating. It contains the active enzyme alpha-galactosidase, derived from the Aspergillus niger fungus, which breaks down complex sugars present in beans, cabbage and brussels sprouts.

XI

Wine tourism has become a huge part of Chianti’s economy since Anthony Hopkins’ famous words in The Silence of the Lambs.

Tuscans have been pairing wine and fava beans for a lot longer though. One nickname some Italians have for people from Tuscany is mangiafagioli (bean-eaters), like the Carracci painting.

XII

Native American peoples mastered a sophisticated process of organic agriculture infinitely more sustainable than the pesticide- and fertiliser-ridden practices common in America today.

Known as the Three Sisters, the staple crops of maize, beans and squash were grown together in plots. Maize would grow in straight stalks, which acted as runners for the bean plants to grow up. Beans fixed nitrogen in the soil to promote better growth of both maize and squash, whose thorny stalks and bushy leaves kept deer and bugs at bay.

XIII

A paper published by the Royal Society from academics at Durham University supposes that the famous English fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk has been around longer than the English language. It stems from a group of fables known as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, which were probably first shared through a now-extinct Indo-European language 5,000 years ago.

This series is inspired by Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird. David McKenzie looks every month at the most normal food you can imagine and offers a fresh view on it. In thirteen different ways.

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