Rethinking culinary relationships: the bean

Food Editor Leslie Savage
Food Editor Leslie Savage

One joy of visiting Goldie and Pam’s Kitchen was a reawakening to the possibilities of the bean. In a sadly out-of-print book on Indian cooking, Ismail Merchant (the film producer, Room with a View) lists 15 varieties of lentil for dal, and I bet Goldie and Pam use them all—tiny little blackish-green chick peas, round green moong beans, lentils of all sizes. The new Joy of Cooking lists 33 kinds of bean—or pulses, to use the botanically correct term.

My relationship with the bean has often been ambivalent. When I was a kid, beans were the musical fruit, subject of jokes, eaten on toast, with ketchup, usually at the cottage or at camp. While sailing, I learned to eat beans directly from the can, with a spoon, on deck—anything rather than go below and queasily light the stove. I once lived in Colombia, where beans are a staple diet: you boil them hard with salt until soft enough to eat, and sometimes add yucca or plantain. Not exactly entrancing.

Later, catering for eight people of whom six were aged 6-16, the journey of discovery began when I read a recipe for home-baked beans. Nothing could have astonished me more: after overnight soaking, you put the beans into a covered pot with some bacon or a hambone, some mustard, brown sugar and water, and leave it cooking all day in a slow oven. The aroma of home-baked beans—sweet sour, delectable—fills the house. The beans themselves, pearls of perfect symmetry in their golden sauce, each nugget safe in a translucent skin, almost pop in your mouth, yielding a lovely creamy interior. It was so easy, and five of the six kids loved them (the exception still hates beans.)

More recently, I was talking to Hermann of Wildflight Farms about food sources, and he mentioned Dan Jason of Saltspring Seeds, the force behind the Seed and Plant Sanctuary of Canada. Jason’s section on beans at, is a compelling argument in favour of rethinking our relationship with protein sources.

Beans are a three-times-a-day staple in many parts of the world. Archeologists tell us that as early as 3750 BCE, people in one part of Peru used Lima beans as a main food source. In North America, they were traded by First Nations peoples as early as 1000 CE, in the trade routes that Europeans such as Jacques Cartier infiltrated. (And we’re taught that the fur traders created these routes!)

Beans are useful because when dried they last forever, are easily stored and transported, and are protein-rich. When buying beans, though, try to find those dried for no more than a year. Good quality beans are not shriveled or broken.

Mixing beans with meat is a Middle Eastern and European import. Lamb is the traditional accompaniment, but when chili became a hallmark of American Southwest cooking—think Tex-Mex or Santa Fe—it was beef that won out, presumably because ranchers had so much of it. Pork has been used since colonial times to flavour plain white navy beans in new England and Quebec, where sowbelly was often the only available meat form by mid-winter—giving rise to the ubiquitous tinned pork’n’beans.

I’m interested in hearing about how you may be redefining food relationships in the light of new information about ecology and health. Send me your thoughts!