This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Beans, Beans, the Magical Fruit, first released on October 23, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
TWILLEY: Screw it. I’m going to get a gold spoon for my bean tasting.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Gold spoon for your bean tasting. Okay.
TWILLEY: It’s, it’s the Gastropod crossover event, where I use my gold spoon. Alright, I’m doing the, I’m doing the little white bean first. And I’m just doing it naked. No oil, no salt, no nothing. Just doing a spoonful of bean.
TWILLEY: Mmm. Even fridge cold. They’re pretty great.
GRABER: So here we go with the King City pink, mine are room temperature because I cooked them this morning and then just let them cool.
GRABER: Mm. They’re delicious. Kind of pinto-y bean, they’re dense and creamy. And they’re kind of earthy. They’re totally delicious.
TWILLEY: I know not everyone tastes their beans on a gold spoon, but then, not everyone loves beans as much as we do. Regular Gastropod listeners will know that Cynthia and I are bean fans and bean evangelists.
GRABER: And of course we’re also Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And so, we decided to treat ourselves to an episode all about what is truly one of our favorite foods, the not-so-humble bean. Mainly because we wanted to figure out why everyone doesn’t love them as much as we do.
GRABER: This episode, we explore the origins of that bean disdain, as well as why beans have been written out of their starring role in the dawn of civilizations around the world.
TWILLEY: But there’s hope, we’ve also got the story of the rare beans and exclusive club at the forefront of today’s bean revival. Plus, of course, farts. Lots of them.
GRABER: This episode was supported in part by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation for the public understanding of science, technology, and economics. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
TWILLEY: Right now, you might be thinking, yay, many of my favorite foods are bean-based. Coffee beans, cacao beans for chocolate, vanilla beans. Beans are the best, right?
KEN ALBALA: Right. Well, coffee beans, they’re not beans at all. They’re, they’re berries. And vanilla bean is a, is a kind of pod, but if you look at the beans, it’s just this very fine, mushy stuff. It looks nothing like a legume. But whenever you see a pod with beans that you can take out. Even carob. That’s a legume. Then they’re related.
GRABER: Ken Albala is a professor of history at the University of the Pacific, and he also wrote a book called: Beans! That’s the title. Beans, A History. And while chocolate and vanilla are not actually beans, real beans are amazing—like black beans, and white beans, and kidney beans. And it turns out these beans are all originally from the Americas.
TWILLEY: I like American beans. But I am a universalist when it comes to beans. I embrace all the beans from all over the world.
ALBALA: And if you look at the fava beans, and the chickpeas, and the lentils, and the black-eyed peas, those are all Old World beans. And at one point when all the continents were connected, these beans were closely related. In the millions of years they spread apart and separated and became very different, as did other legumes, which we don’t think of as being related. But they are.
GRABER: Other legumes like soy, and tamarind, and carob. But we’ve already done an episode all about tofu, and tamarind and carob aren’t really what I think of when I think about eating beans for dinner. So New World beans and Old World lentils and chickpeas it is.
TWILLEY: And beans and lentils and chickpeas it has been, for all of human history.
ALBALA: Well, they go back as far as humans, and much earlier than humans. Beans are gathered in the wild by hunters and gatherers, you know, long before there’s civilization. If you’re smart, I mean, you, you understand beans are very easy to pick.
TWILLEY: And our ancestors liked beans so much that they were among the earliest crops to be domesticated.
PAUL GEPTS: The most common bean, is, was actually domesticated twice. So once in Mesoamerica. And the other one in the Andes. And so, there is a total of at least seven domestications in this genus, actually, so it’s really a hot spot of domestication.
GRABER: Paul Gepts is a professor of plant science—of bean science really—at the University of California Davis. And it’s kind of shocking that beans were domesticated, separately, in seven different places around the world. That’s how much we’ve loved them, no matter where we humans were living.
ALBALA: There are a lot of upsides to beans. So we tend to think agriculture, the Neolithic revolution means grain, cereal crops, wheat and barley in the Middle East. And corn in Mesoamerica, and rice in Asia. Millet and rice. But actually none of those things work on their own as a major staple crop. You need a bean to go along with them to provide the protein and to, you know, be a more complete food. Especially if meat isn’t a very big part of your diet, then you need beans to provide the protein.
TWILLEY: Without beans, for some of our ancestors, protein would have been in short supply. But that’s not the only reason early humans loved beans.
ALBALA: Yeah, it’s a crop rotation system. It’s, it’s very simple. So this is important. When you plant a grain crop, it pulls the nitrogen out of the soil, and if you keep planting it there over and over again, eventually the soil’s just going to become depleted, and you’re not going to have a crop at all.
GRABER: We’ve talked about this before on Gastropod, but in the past, people didn’t have a lot of fertilizer. And so one of the best ways to pull nitrogen from the air and get it back into the soil is to plant legumes, beans. Because they have a bacterium that lives on their roots that can fix nitrogen in the soil. Plus you have delicious beans to eat for protein.
TWILLEY: Then, if you want to really maximize, you can do a three-step rotation: grains, beans, and then another nitrogen fixing crop that’s also something animals like to eat, like clover or alfalfa. Then, you’re really golden.
ALBALA: If you just switch those three fields around every year, you don’t have to leave one of them fallow and it creates more food.
GEPTS: So in Mexico you had maize and beans. In the Andes, you had a series of root crops, among which potato, and you had beans. You go to the Middle East, you have wheat, barley, and you have lentil, chickpea, pea. You go to China, you have soybean. So you see this recurring theme, a recurring combination. People emphasize usually a single crop like maize in Mexico, rice in China, but it’s really the combination that has allowed people to, I’d say, survive and thrive.
GRABER: Our ancestors did just that, and then by medieval times, the bean led to the growth of cities and the construction of cathedrals.
TWILLEY: None other than Umberto Eco, Italian polymath and author of The Name of the Rose and also Foucault’s Pendulum which sidenote is a much better book—anyway, none other than Eco, who was a major bean stan, pointed out that the flowering of European civilization after the poverty of the Dark Ages was pretty much down to the spread of the lentil and the reintroduction of this three-crop rotation system.
ALBALA: Simple rule of history is more food, more people. And more people—you know, it creates this boom of medieval civilization, meaning, they need more infrastructure, more physicians, more lawyers. Universities pop up, cities start to thrive, trade starts to open. So you could—you know, it’s, it’s silly to say, oh, it’s because of the bean, like, all this stuff happened. But beans are a crucial part of this. And the, you know, standard narrative just doesn’t include them.
GRABER: The standard narrative is all about the grains, like wheat and rice, and those were obviously important. But here’s what people forget or ignore: without beans, those grains couldn’t possibly have been enough.
TWILLEY: Beans basically fuelled civilization and so unsurprisingly, they’re entwined with some of humanity’s oldest myths and traditions.
ALBALA: If we go back to the root of the word, the, the word bhuna, which I think is proto Indo-European, means to swell. So it’s kind of, you know, it swells when it goes into the pot. And it’s a metaphor for pregnancy and rebirth and in, you know, many of the ancient religions, it kind of keeps that, that meaning in much of the ancient civilizations. Is that, it’s got this special kind of power.
GRABER: Ken says that lentils were the first domesticated legumes, and the ancient Egyptians used to honor lentils by putting them in tombs to help feed people in the afterlife.
ALBALA: And it’s in, you know, the earliest agricultural manuals. They mention planting beans. It’s in, you know, Egyptian tombs. I mean, it’s, it’s kind of everywhere. Wherever civilization exists, we know it’s there. It’s in the Bible.
TWILLEY: The big lentil story in the Bible is one that I’ve always felt is totally unfair: it’s the one with Isaac’s twin sons, Esau the first born and Jacob the sneak, who’s supposed to somehow be a hero.
GRABER: The story goes that Jacob wanted to be the one to take over the family when Isaac died, and in this case it would really mean go on to be one of the founding fathers of the Israelites. And his sneaky move came about because of a legume.
ALBALA: Jacob is there making a lentil stew. It’s a red stew, and later on in the passage it identifies it as lentils. And Esau’s out hunting and he comes back and he says, I’m starving. I’m going to die. Please give me some of your lentil stew. And Jacob says, well, okay, but sell me your birthright. And swear upon it. And he does.
TWILLEY: I mean, I love lentils, but that was not necessarily a good deal for Esau. Though, you know leadership is overrated and lentils are great so maybe he was better off out of it.
GRABER: I appreciate the biblical commentary. In any case, the point is that lentils were a big deal. And lentils and chickpeas and all kinds of beans were critical in ancient Rome and ancient Greece. Around the Mediterranean beans were a staple.
ALBALA: So I think if you were to ask the average person, they all ate beans happily. And that’s still the case today. You know Greek people eat plenty, plenty of beans.
TWILLEY: All except the one dude you know from math class, Pythagorus.
ALBALA: Pythagoras is a very strange figure, you know, he was, he was a hippie. [LAUGHS] Well, let’s put it that way. Pythagoras apparently went either to Egypt or maybe even to India to go on a sort of spiritual quest like the Beatles.
GRABER: Like seriously, he and his followers were hippies—who lived about 2500 years before modern-day hippies. They sat around playing guitar, they probably wore long loose fitting clothing, they didn’t eat meat.
ALBALA: So you picture these guys with long hair and sandals in southern Italy, vegetarians. Vegetarian makes sense, but why not beans? You think the, you know, beans would be central to a vegetarian diet.
TWILLEY: But no. Pythagorus may have been right about the angles in a triangle, but in my humble opinion he was all wrong about beans. He hated them. Among the Pythagoreans, beans were banned. If you followed Pythagorus, not only could you not eat beans, you couldn’t even walk through a bean field.
GRABER: This seems pretty bizarre. And so there have been a lot of theories about why this famous early super intellectual hippie vegetarian wouldn’t have eaten beans. One of them weirdly is because people say he didn’t want to participate in politics.
ALBALA: And that’s traditionally why many people say, oh, Pythagoras said don’t eat beans, is you know, bean counters were, were politicians. And they would vote using colored beans. But I don’t think that’s actually what was going on. Some people said, well, it’s, it’s obviously the, the flatulence thing and therefore, you know, you can’t think clearly if you’ve got gas.
TWILLEY: This is clearly nonsense, I think great thoughts and I’ve definitely farted in my time. Ken’s favorite theory is that the fava bean plant, which was basically the most common bean in ancient Greece—it sort of functioned as an elevator for souls to travel from where they’d been buried back up to the earth’s surface for another go round.
ALBALA: And I think what was going on is that Pythagoras seems to have thought that people’s souls were regenerated, reincarnated through the stalks of the bean plant.
GRABER: In case this sounds a bit far fetched to you, there’s more. Ken points out that the bacteria on the roots that help fix nitrogen are the same ones used in the Impossible Burger to make it look like it’s bleeding, they exude a red liquid.
ALBALA: And if you pull out the, the plant, the, the fava bean plant, it looks like this blood coming out of the nodules on the roots. So, so this makes sense that, you know, you’re killing future generations of people.
TWILLEY: Listen, a lot of things make a different kind of sense after you’ve become enlightened. But there is another theory that I maybe buy into a little more, which is to do with a hereditary disease called favism. It’s really only found in this part of the world, around the Mediterranean, and people who have it can have a sometimes pretty severe allergic reaction to raw fava beans and even pollen from fava bean plants.
GRABER: This in theory could explain why Pythagoras objected to even running through a field of favas, but Ken doesn’t really buy it. He says it’s so rare that even if Pythagoras had seen someone suffering an allergic reaction, had seen young boys get weak and winded from eating a fava or breathing in the pollen, Ken thinks it’s unlikely he’d have proclaimed all favas off limits for everyone.
TWILLEY: That said, there are some researchers who say maybe Pythagoras suffered from favism himself, and he was the leader of the gang so he banned favas for everyone. Or it’s the reincarnated souls theory. You decide.
GRABER: The point is that everyone except those weird vegetarian non-bean-eating hippies ate chickpeas and lentils and fava beans throughout Europe and the Middle East. And so when they encountered new beans when they sailed to the shores of what’s now North and South America, like black beans and kidney beans, sure these new beans looked a little different…
ALBALA: But beans are—they’re there certainly when all the colonists show up, and they look at the beans and they don’t think of them as a different species and they adopt them immediately in Europe, which I find very interesting. Many new world foods—tomatoes, chilies, potatoes—people looked on as suspect, either because they have poisonous relatives in the old world, the whole solanaceae family is poison in Europe. And they, they looked at those suspiciously. Beans, they didn’t. They just took them immediately. They planted them to such an extent that many bean varieties are grown traditionally in Europe, and the people in Europe to this day think they’re indigenous. They think they belong. They come from Europe.
TWILLEY: In the Mediterranean you can find a bunch of very traditional soups and stews like cassoulet and minestrone that mostly use New World beans. And the Italians and French who are making those dishes often think the beans they’re using are originally Italian and French.
ALBALA: They still don’t, don’t think of them as being you know, from the Americas.
TWILLEY: This is a funny feature of beans. Everyone eats them, and yet everyone also thinks of beans as uniquely theirs. Bean dishes often end up being super traditional and particular to a place and its people.
GRABER: Like the Tuscans basically think they invented white beans, they grow beautiful creamy beans that they eat warmed up with olive oil, they eat them with stewed tomatoes, they eat them in ribollita, which is a delicious Tuscan soup I love.
TWILLEY: Tuscans call themselves the bean eaters, and they have a distinctive traditional way of cooking their beans too, in a glass flask called a fiasco.
ALBALA: Tuscans are kind of proud of the fact that they’re mangia faggioli, you know. And the, the faggioli in fiasco, which is you put it in the glass thing and you put it in the fireplace and you hope that it doesn’t explode.
TWILLEY: An explosion of glass and beans instead of dinner does sound like a fiasco, but sadly no one has proven that that’s the origin of the expression. Also, just a note from health and safety, traditionally, this was peasants leaving a robust Chianti bottle full of beans and water and seasoning in the embers of a fire overnight. Today, Tuscans and would-be Tuscans can buy a special Pyrex-type glass flask to use on their stovetop or in the oven.
GRABER: West Africans don’t seem to have used glass to cook their beans, but they also are bean eaters, they eat beans basically every day. Beans like black-eyed peas or cowpeas—these might be made into a stew or a fritter, or even bread or pudding. But these beans also have a second purpose: they’re special offerings to both ancestors and gods.
ALBALA: Among the Yoruba, there’s an ancestor cult. The iffa. Which, the gods that you pray to, you have to give them favors. You have to do things for them. And they have their favorite dishes. So you, when you make an offering, you present this dish to them that they’ll be nice to you and do favors for you. So black-eyed peas are one of these things. And hence it’s, you know, for wealth and prosperity. And I think at some level, that translated into the American South.
TWILLEY: Via the middle passage and the trade in enslaved people. Cowpeas and black-eyed peas were entwined in this vicious history. On the one hand, they still had their traditional association with blessings and all things good. And enslaved folks grew them on their own patches of land, to help them survive.
GRABER: On the other hand, slave traders and plantation owners saw black-eyed peas as the best way to feed what they saw as the animals that were their property—whether that was livestock or the enslaved.
TWILLEY: Then, during the Civil War, victorious Northern troops were unfamiliar with black-eyed peas. So when General Sherman’s soldiers came across black-eyed peas in the field, they didn’t eat them or burn them like they did other crops. That left black-eyed peas as one of the only sources of food for struggling Southerners of all races.
GRABER: And then after the war, poor farmers in the South couldn’t afford fertilizer. So to grow their food, they learned from the African American tradition of intercropping black eyed peas for soil fertility. Black-eyed peas became a staple across the region, and not just for African Americans.
TWILLEY: In the end, somehow, from all that complicated history, you get the Southern and African American tradition of hoppin’ john, which is a dish of black eyed peas, pork, and rice, traditionally eaten for good luck on New Years.
GRABER: Continuing our world tour of beans: among my ancestors, a particularly Eastern European Jewish bean dish is called chollent. Because Jews traditionally don’t cook on Shabbat, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, they put on a bean stew before Shabbat starts and it’s okay to leave the heat on, so they just leave it cooking and then it’s ready for Shabbat lunch on Saturday.
ALBALA: Yeah. So, the equivalent of your Ashkenazi cholent is called adafina. This is my ancestors, actually, I don’t know whether you could tell from my last name. It’s Sephardic. And this was a, a stew of chickpeas and meat and very much like chollent. And in fact the ancestor of cosido, you know, madralena, and all these things that they still eat in Spain are still very similar to that.
TWILLEY: Sounds delicious, but like everything to do with Jews in Europe, there’s a dark side: when Spain officially expelled Jews in 1492, obviously there were many who didn’t leave because they didn’t have anywhere to go. So they stayed and pretended to be Catholic in order not to be killed. But the bean stew was a tell.
ALBALA: The stew, of course the smoke comes out of the chimney and people, your neighbors who might not like you are going to rat on you. And the way the Inquisition worked is you could give evidence that without naming yourself. You could just secretly say, I hate my neighbor, I’m going to turn in the evidence that this person is cooking a, an adafina and on Friday night, and the officials would knock on your door and if they found you, you know, they’d force you to recant. And you, you could actually recant. You’d pay a fine, you know, that they could do that. For many people they said they didn’t, and they were burned at the stake.
GRABER: Tipped off by a stew, which is pretty horrific. But in general unfortunately this is not an unusual kind of story historically for Jews in Europe. Now, this is also going to sound pretty strange, and even stranger coming out of a story about the Inquisition, but cholent and adafina are actually close relatives of Boston baked beans.
ALBALA: So baked beans are a very New England kind of thing. There’s a theory that the logic of why Jews wouldn’t cook on the Sabbath extends to the original Puritan settlers of Massachusetts. And there’s a certain strange logic to this. Because these were very strict Sabbatarians. Absolutely true. And part of the reason they left the Church of England was so that they could do a thorough and complete reform, including keeping the Sabbath.
TWILLEY: England, like Spain, was not super tolerant of religious differences and so the pilgrims headed west, where they could not cook on their Sabbath in peace.
ALBALA: Which was of course Sunday. So you know, making beans on Saturday and eating them Sunday morning becomes a tradition in New England. But a unique kind of thing, because you’re adding molasses to it. Which just has to do with the, the trade with the Caribbean and the whole sugar trade. You’re adding pork, salt pork or, or bacon or something like that into it also, and this is a staple there. You traditionally cook it in a jug, like a fiasco, I guess you put it in the oven and it, you, it’ll be happy until the next day.
GRABER: Word of this New England culinary invention made it down to Pennsylvania, and in 1895, Mr. Henry John Heinz, of Heinz ketchup fame, he got the brilliant idea to put this New England slow-cooked molasses-y tomato-y baked bean dish in a can.
ALBALA: And within a few years they convince British people to to eat this too. And they’re made in Britain also. But what fascinates me is British people have no idea that this is an American thing. That the dish is American. That, that it’s, you know, an American company. And they’re very traditionally beans on toast. I mean, everyone in Britain knows this. It’s a college staple.
TWILLEY: We don’t usually call university college, but I can confirm from personal experience that otherwise Ken is 100 percent correct. Baked beans are a great jacket potato filling too. But yes, beans on toast is definitely in heavy rotation, frankly even for non-students.
ALBALA: And it’s something ironically, that Americans would never think of doing in a million years, putting beans on toast? What? You eat this?
TWILLEY: Yes we do. You can’t even have a proper full English breakfast without beans. In England, beans means baked beans, and baked beans means Heinz.
SINGERS: A million households every day, pick up a tin of beans and say: beans means Heinz!
GRABER: Beans on toast doesn’t sound so weird to me—I mean, I’m probably not the best example of what most of America eats—but personally I always loved baked beans in a can as a kid, we ate it with hot dogs cut up in it. And then when I was in Barcelona in college, my friend and I found a can of baked beans in the market and ate them on a bun on a hilltop overlooking the city for a cheap lunch. Why not!
TWILLEY: But Cynthia, you as I often say, are unique and special. And most Americans no longer embrace the canned baked bean on the regular, as Ken found out when he was asked for some advice by Bush’s baked beans.
ALBALA: They’re kind of trying so hard to make people think that beans are not just 4th of July. They’re not just to go with barbecue, that this is—beans are the next vegetable. You know, they’re trying to sell it as vegetable, which it is of course, no denying that. But it’s not the way we eat it in the US.
GRABER: Part of the problem is that we don’t eat that many beans at all in America these days. Why not? Why have these lovely legumes fallen out of fashion? That story, after the break.
TWILLEY: Part of me is astonished that we’ve made it this far into the show and hardly mentioned the F-word. Fart. I mean beans and farts go together like… uh, what’s that song?
GRABER: You mean like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong? [LAUGHS]
TWILLEY: I do, in fact. And they always have. Even back in the day, when all the ancient Greeks but Pythagorus were enjoying plenty of beans, even then, there was the stirring of fart-based anti-bean feelings.
ALBALA: In ancient Greece, there’s an elite and they decided for various purposes, medical reasons, citing, you know, indigestibility and your need to have a—to do a lot of labor to, to digest the plate of beans. So, so it’s sort of built into the medical theory that only laborers and people who get a lot of exercise should eat beans. People who are delicate and thinkers, you know, should sit aside and, and consume other things that are easier to digest. And that’s in, you know, Hippocrates, it’s in Galenic theory. And beans as just being indigestible and they keep that reputation right up in through—well right to modernity really.
TWILLEY: And when Ken and Hippocrates say indigestible, we all know what that’s a euphemism for.
BART SIMPSON: Beans, beans, the musical fruit. The more you eat, the more you toot!
GRABER: Thanks, Bart. But it’s not just about the farts—though don’t worry, we will come back to the question of whether you can have your beans and not fart, too. But the other things beans have going for them and against them is that they’re a pretty cheap source of protein. They’re much cheaper to grow and raise than cows or sheep or pigs.
TWILLEY: And so people eat a lot of beans until they get richer or they find ways to make meat cheaper.
ALBALA: And I think whenever meat becomes really inexpensive, people eat more of it. It tastes good, apparently. And beans are, a reminder of what you had to eat before you could afford meat. So it makes perfect sense that as meat consumption goes up, bean consumption goes down. And this is happening pretty much around the world right now. You know, it happened in the US more than half a century ago.
TWILLEY: All round the world, even historically, Ken says the elite who could afford meat, ate meat, rather than beans. And so beans were almost always associated with people who weren’t wealthy enough to buy meat—ie, the poor.
ALBALA: So it gets this kind of social stigma in places where there’s a very stratified very differentiated ways of eating by social class.
GRABER: Like Europe, and then in the US.
ALBALA: In places where beans are the staple are absolutely essential to the cuisine—Mexico is a great example, India is a great example—beans don’t get stigmatized because everyone eats them. And in fact, in India it’s even more interesting because they, you know, the highest brahmins don’t eat meat. They’re vegetarians. And so beans—daal, you know, lentils and, and other beans become essential to the diet. And so that’s the weird exception historically. But if you look at Europe, you look at North America, you look at any place where meat is available to the wealthy. Well, beans get the stigma as being peasant food.
TWILLEY: There are some other reasons that in recent decades people in America got kind of put off beans. One was that beans seem like they can be stored forever, but the truth is, the older dried beans are, the longer they take to cook. Sometimes super old beans don’t really cook properly at all.
ALBALA: I think, I think a lot of the people’s antipathy toward bean was, was that they’re so difficult to cook ’cause they’ve been sitting on the shelf for so long.
GRABER: Another problem is that generally, sure, at least on the east coast, you might have had baked beans in the pantry and also maybe a few cans of refried beans around for taco night, but the most common bean here for decades was the lima bean, and a lot of times people who think they hate beans, well, they were scarred by early exposure to lima beans.
TWILLEY: This is not something I grew up eating in England. What’s wrong with lima beans?
GRABER: To be honest, I couldn’t really remember, so I bought frozen limas recently. I couldn’t even find canned limas anymore. It turns out they’re light green and kind of mealy and not particularly tasty.
TWILLEY: That is weird because when I make lima beans from dried, they’re white, not green, and when they’re cooked they end up with this gorgeous creamy mashed potato texture and buttery taste. I love them.
GRABER: Until now, I didn’t think I’d tried plain limas from dried, but I was shocked to discover that they’re actually the same thing as butter beans, which I adore. Turns out that if you let lima beans fully dry in the field, they turn white. And then you cook them, and then yeah, they’re amazing, whether they’re called butter beans or lima beans.
TWILLEY: Cynthia’s lima bean story—bean disdain transformed into bean appreciation—it’s increasingly common. Thanks to some quite recent changes in the bean scene.
ALBALA: And I think, a lot of what has happened lately is a few companies are selling better beans.
STEVE SANDO: First bean was Rio Zape, which I think I got from native seed search. And it’s a purple and black bean. And I remember eating it and thinking, well, it tastes like pintos, but it’s way better. There’s like hints of chocolate, hints of coffee. It was, it was terrific. And I thought, why is this not known?
GRABER: Steve Sando is the founder and head of what’s probably the most famous bean company in the country these days, it’s called Rancho Gordo. We went to visit Steve in his Napa headquarters. But founding a bean company and helping trigger a renaissance in beans wasn’t on Steve’s mind when the company was first born a couple decades ago.
SANDO: I turned 40. I had a couple of, well, many, many dead end jobs and I thought, well just get a garden and a job at Target because that’s really what the future has in store for you. All these things that almost worked out never did. So that’s when I was growing tomatoes, and I started taking them to the farmer’s market. But they didn’t really ripen here until late August and the markets start in March. And I thought, well, I’ll just grow beans that’ll carry me through until the tomatoes ripen.
TWILLEY: So he did. Steve sold his beans at the farmers market, and most people ignored him but not all.
SANDO: There were enough bean people that it was fine. It kept me encouraged. Most people would walk by and have no interest and kind of felt sorry for me.
GRABER: But the few bean people around were real bean enthusiasts, just enough to spread the world. And that word eventually reached the ears of legendary chef Thomas Keller. And the rest is history.
TWILLEY: Thomas Keller fell in love with a particular bean called the Vallarta, it was very rare, nearly extinct, but Steve was growing it. Thomas Keller loved its dense fudgy texture and he made it a staple on the menu at his restaurant, the French Laundry.
SANDO: So I made sure everybody knew which beans Thomas Keller liked, and we pushed that.
GRABER: These heirloom beans might have started to catch on in Steve’s tiny corner of the world, but in general around most of the country they weren’t easy to find.
SANDO: Well, I think all the grocery stores had sacks of generic commodity beans that were really dusty. You could go to an ethnic market and find, if they had a high turnover, you could actually find okay black beans and pinto beans and maybe cranberry beans.
TWILLEY: At the time, this is the 90s, beans really were either quote “ethnic food” or they were health food. But the Thomas Keller experience made Steve realize that the way to sell his beans was based on how good they tasted.
SANDO: And I thought, you know, beans have always had this kind of hippie, ascetic penance kind of vibe to them. And it’s like, oh, no, no, no. This is how we’re going to do this. And also, I didn’t really care that much about health, and I really did think they were delicious, and that was where the value was.
GRABER: He sold his beans based on taste, it worked, the company quickly expanded, and Steve couldn’t keep up with the demand. So he needed to find local farmers to grow these finicky heirloom beans. Turns out though, that it wasn’t that easy.
SANDO: No, it’s been really rough. Because a lot of them are trained by the universities that focus on agriculture and their goal is yield. That’s really what they focus on.
TWILLEY: And heirlooms are delicious but they’re really not about yield. Still, today, Steve has recruited a squad of farmers to grow his beans, mostly in California’s Central and San Joaquin valleys. And Steve himself spends his time finding the coolest new beans in town. We’ll introduce you to some of those beans, and the exclusive club you have to be in if you want to taste them first, after the break.
GRABER: When Steve first started growing the business he’d named Rancho Gordo, he searched the internet and found people willing to share or sell their special seeds. He found a bunch of farmers who loved their regional beans who were excited about getting a bigger audience for them. And then he moved on to the real home of most of these types of beans, and that’s Mexico.
SANDO: I would go to Mexico and then you go to the tianguis or the market. And there’s one section that would have all the beans, and then there would be Indigenous women usually on mats, on the peripheral. And that’s where the gold was. And every time I go, I’d find another bean I’d never even heard of.
GRABER: Local farmers at first were confused, they thought he wanted like a commodity bean—
SANDO: When we first started going there, so this was 2008, they would see me and they’d think, okay, well you’re looking for cheap beans. And you know, we can’t really make these any cheaper. It’s like, no, no, no, I want your grandmother’s beans. And they just could not believe that.
TWILLEY: Steve would buy these heirloom beans, bring them back to the US, grow them, and figure out whether they were delicious or just beautiful to look at. And then, when he found the ones that were super delicious, he would go back.
SANDO: And I was so rude. I asked if I could buy enough for seed, and it seems like that would make sense. They could make some money, I could make the beans. Well, they’re smart and they know that that’s, it was the most offensive thing I could have suggested. So I learned quickly to stop that.
TWILLEY: Offensive because these were their grandmothers’ beans, and here Steve was saying hey, I’d like to take these and grow them and make some Yankee dollars off them and you won’t be involved anymore.
GRABER: Steve wised up, he partnered with two local food entrepreneurs in Mexico, and they helped him figure out how to create a growing import business. They now serve as bean finders, translators, and partners in exporting the beans that Mexicans grow locally.
TWILLEY: Rancho Gordo is now big enough that when Steve orders a bulk amount of these heirloom grandmother beans for American bean fans, he needs a lot of beans—enough to make a real difference to farmers’ lives in Mexico.
SANDO: So there’s one village where we go, and it sounds like such a cliché, but the streets are paved. There are men everywhere. And these are men who used to go to Florida in particular to get construction jobs. And now they’re doing what they want, which is working their land and producing these beans. And they get such a kick out of the fact that they’re being exported here.
GRABER: Steve has discovered some amazing beans in Mexico, and he’s finding new ones all the time.
SANDO: So that, and that’s how we got this new black bean. ’cause we have midnight blacks, we have Ayacote Nero, we have the Oaxacan blacks. It’s like, I, we don’t need another black bean. Why would you send me this? And it’s like, oh crap, this is great. I have to have this.
GRABER: Which one?
SANDO: The negro de vara I think it is. It says Chiapas black bean on it. And it’s like they’re velvety .And it, it’s almost—this is like the best black bean ever, I think.
TWILLEY: Steve is pretty excited about his beans.
SANDO: Our number one bean is Royal Corona. They were big, but they just bred them to be humongous and have a thin skin. And they’re, they’re pretty amazing. It’s our, yeah, it’s our number one bean for a reason. But then you go from Rio Zape, which is dark and rich and chocolatey to something like we call it Marcella. They’re white and almost have almost no thin, they’re gossamer thin wings. I mean the skin. And they’re almost like pudding. They’re fabulous. Then there’s the runner beans, like the Ayocote or scarlet runners are like, starchy. I mean, each one is completely different.
TWILLEY: Steve has fallen in love with so many beans he’s had to bench some of them these days—like the bean Thomas Keller originally fell in love with? Not part of the line up right now.
SANDO: We’re just rotating. They’re like beanie babies, you know, they go into retirement sometimes, but we’ll bring ’em back.
GRABER: So a few years ago, Steve was looking at all the beans that were in rotation, and he was thinking about how he could help more people taste a wider variety of beans, and he got an idea.
SANDO: We were sitting around and someone talked about being in a wine club. And I thought, oh, there’s, how many more wine clubs do we need? And I thought, oh, you know what? This is of value. Let’s do a bean club. That would be hysterical. I did it as a joke and you know, it started with a couple hundred people almost immediately, and then little by little it just… blossomed.
GRABER: If you’re in Bean Club, you pay a yearly fee, and you get a random handpicked selection of beans four times a year. Some are beans you can also buy a la carte online at Rancho Gordo or find at stores around the country, but some are varieties that only go to bean club members.
TWILLEY: Within a year, Rancho Gordo’s bean club was so hot that Steve had to start a wait list. People literally put their names down to get in the bean club. I am proud to say I am one of those people.
REPORTER: It’s 11,000 members strong, with another 11,000 on the waiting list to get in. Penny Garcia of San Antonio, Texas, is a member.
PENNY GARCIA: I always tell my husband I will never, ever give up my spot in the Rancho Gordo Bean Club. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: That was from CBS three years ago, today bean club has doubled! And of course there’s still a wait list to join. You can get in the club if someone—not Penny Garcia obviously— if someone else decides to drop out.
SANDO: but we can’t really grow much bigger. ’cause if we were to grow bigger, we’d have to do more generic beans. We couldn’t find the little special things anymore. So, it’s a really good problem to have.
TWILLEY: Basically, Steve has kind of found himself at the forefront of a bean revival. More and more Americans are rediscovering beans and welcoming them back onto their dinner plates. I am, as I mentioned, definitely part of this movement, I eat beans pretty much every day, which I never did in the past. I credit the Instant Pot with a big part of that uptick, because it makes cooking beans so quick and easy, no worries about watching the pot for hours.
GRABER: Personally,I’ve been searching out fun new dried beans for years even before I had an instant pot, but really, it’s because beans are great all around. They’re great for the environment, they’re great for you, they taste great. And even fancy beans are actually pretty cheap.
TWILLEY: Ahead of the curve as always. But these days, more and more people are catching up to you, Cynthia.
ALBALA: As people are looking for more environmentally friendly ways of getting protein, meat is just not the long-term solution. I think this episode, following on the heels of your alternative meat one makes perfect sense, because people are bending over backwards to reinvent meat. But I think like, everything would be so much easier if you just grow and eat beans, you know? And. They don’t even have to be in burger form. Just, just make a pot of beans. So I think, I think people have looked for this magic high protein plant. It’s been there the whole time.
TWILLEY: Amen. To be honest, in a lot of the rest of the world, people never forgot how great beans are. In sub-Saharan Africa, where a lot of people can’t afford to eat animal protein regularly, beans remain a beloved staple.
CLARE MUKANKUSI: Oh, we eat them daily. Daily, even up to now it’s daily. So it’s the lunch, it’s suppers. Lunch is supper. So it’s a daily, it’s a daily meal. Yeah.
GRABER: Clare Mukankusi is the global breeding lead at one of the world’s largest coalitions of crop breeders, it’s called the the Alliance for Biodiversity CIAT, which is the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. And she says beans are super popular in her home country of Uganda as well as the countries all around her, and that’s true for both the rich and the poor.
MUKANKUSI: It’s common. Let’s say from where I come from, Chisoro, it’s definitely, it’s even more than twice. It’s breakfast. It’s lunch. So on. When you come to the cities, you visit the schools, the boarding schools, it’s a daily staple. You go to the homes, even the, both the rural homes, the modern homes, urban homes, Beans are, are there almost on a daily basis. So you might find like the low income people may eat beans more often, but at least even the urban dwellers will have beans maybe three or four times in a week. But now if you look at our neighbors, Rwanda, Burundi, those us eat beans more than Uganda.
TWILLEY: Rwandan people actually eat more beans than anyone else in the world, the average Rwandan eats 17 times more beans than an average American. But really, all over sub-Saharan Africa, beans are super popular.
GRABER: But as much as everyone loves beans, Clare thinks there’s still room for improvement. She’s been breeding beans for increased nutrition and higher yields.
MUKANKUSI: So when it comes to yield, we’ve really made a big, a big big progress in yield. Yeah. So the productivity of beans has doubled in some countries. And that means there are more beans in the countries, and when there are more beans, more people are consuming them. Those who didn’t have access, now have access. Those who have surplus are going into marketing, they’ve developed businesses out of beans. Some of them are doing trading, they’re exporting.
GRABER: But Clare’s not done. She’s also been working on protecting beans from a particular fungus. And what she’s really excited about today is shortening the cooking time. In her country and in a lot of countries in Africa, many people don’t have electricity for an instant pot. She wants to cut cooking time down to an hour, an hour and a half.
TWILLEY: This is a bigger deal than it seems. I mean, long cooking times put me off cooking beans before I got my Instant Pot because I sometimes don’t plan in advance very well, and also I hate having to constantly check the pot to make sure there’s still enough water.
MUKANKUSI: Sitting and waiting for beans is a disincentive for women who cook—and then anyone, maybe men. So you don’t want to sit down and wait for some for food to get ready. You want to do quick and do something else. You could spend your time doing something else.
GRABER: There’s also the issue of the fuel source, and this is something that’s a big challenge in Africa.
MUKANKUSI: Within Africa, the, the source of energy for cooking food is either charcoal or firewood. And one thing about cooking, using charcoal, of course, firewood, it means trees have to be cut down. You have to burn trees. And so it has an impact on the environment because you’re cutting down the trees and so deforestation and so on. Yeah. Then, again, when it comes to cooking, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen someone cooking beans with firewood. There’s a lot of smoke being produced. So you see that most women, most women in the villages have red eyes. Because they’re exposed to a lot of smoke while they’re cooking.
GRABER: Plus the smoke contributes to all sorts of breathing and lung problems.
TWILLEY: These same issues affect many households in developing countries around the world. And so since 2020, Clare has been breeding new varieties, trying to get the cooking time down without compromising yield or flavor or nutrition or anything else that matters.
GRABER: She’s making progress, so far Clare and her colleagues have been able to reduce the cooking time by 5 percent without any sacrifices. They’re continuing on and are hoping to reduce the cooking time by about a third. It’s going to take a little while to get there.
MUKANKUSI: I think that will be around 20…. 2035, maybe when they’re in the farmer’s fields and being consumed. But for us to release them, I think it’ll be 20, 2029, around there.
GRABER: Which in plant breeding terms is like basically next week!
TWILLEY: The long and short of it is that even though it’s hard for a committed bean fan like me to believe, it turns out there is still room for improvement in beans. And Clare is on it. Although there is one bean upgrade she hasn’t been able to work on.
GRABER: And that’s, yes, fart reduction.
MUKANKUSI: We have for a long time wanted to do some research to understand and maybe reduce that effect. But we’ve not been successful to get the support [LAUGHS] to do it. Because the issue will be at, is it a priority trait? So you have to say, is it a priority trait? How many people are asking for it? How many people won’t eat beans because you know, they will get gassy. So it’s difficult to justify.
GRABER: The infamous fart problems. Beans are famous for making you a little windy.
SINGER: Beans, beans, the musical fruit. The more you eat, the more you toot. The more you toot, the better you feel, so lift up your leg and let one squeal.
TWILLEY: Such a banger. But seriously, the gassiness is a not-so-welcome side effect of beans for a lot of people. Clare is not alone in her wish to develop a fart-less bean. It’s a hot topic in the bean world. Ken told us that the folks at Bush’s baked beans told him that they were also working on it.
\ALBALA: And I said, how do you test this? Then they said, but we have these fart suits. So these people wear these big inflatable suits, they fart in them, and then they can measure the, the, you know, amount of gas that’s in this whole suit. And I said, you’re kidding me, right? And they’re like, Nope. Absolutely serious. We’re, we’re developing this bean.
GRABER: Ken also at one point met a British researcher who thought about inserting a measuring device in peoples’ rear ends to quantify their farts closer to the source as he tried to breed a less farty bean.
ALBALA: And as far as I can tell, that has still not happened. And I think it is a doomed kind of prospect, because people don’t want fart less beans. ‘Cause that’s going to remind them beans cause farts and they’re just not going to want to eat them at all. There is Bean-o, and I don’t know what’s happened to that company, but that they—I bought a, a little container of it. It’s supposed to be. It, it’s basically the oligosaccharides in the beans that your body has a hard time digesting. And so the bacteria eat them and they create this gas, and it’s, there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just socially unacceptable. But the Bean-o supposedly breaks down those complex sugars for you.
TWILLEY: I have not tried Beano, but the folks at Serious Eats did a deep dive into this pressing issue, and they say it’s the only thing that helps diminish the wind. They found it had its biggest effect on the bean broth, which is the liquid around the beans in the can or in your saucepan. And indeed the broth is in my experience where most of beans’ fart-triggering potential is to be found.
GRABER: I agree that the liquid is the fartiest part of bean consumption, at least in my experience, and so though it’s delicious, I don’t usually consume so much of it. But sure, I do fart, and I probably fart a little more because I love beans so much.
ALBALA: Well, if you eat them every day, that is exactly what happens, I have to tell you. And I assumed, oh, I’ll get used to it. My body will adjust. I’ll be able to digest them. Absolutely not. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: I mean, I haven’t tested this scientifically but it makes sense. If you fart more because you’re providing more oligosaccharides to microbes that love to eat oligosaccharides, and those microbes blow out gas that you then have to blow out—well, if you eat beans regularly, those microbes are probably pretty busy eating bean bits and blowing out gas. But I personally think bean farts are less smelly than other farts.
TWILLEY: And listen, I eat beans everyday and I don’t suffer from debilitating gas. My social life has not been affected. Also, whatever. Everyone farts.
ALBALA: It’s, you know, it—you just get used to having gas. It’s no big deal really.
SINGER: Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart, the more you eat, the more you fart. The more you fart, the better you feel, so let’s have beans with every meal!
GRABER: Just a note: Nicky and I both love dried beans, and you can certainly get a wider experience of the universe of bean flavors and texture in fun dried varieties, but canned beans are totally fine.
TWILLEY: I’m in bean club and still I always have a can or two on hand for when I need beans fast.
GRABER: I freeze my newly cooked leftovers so that I always have some around, too. So many ways to enjoy them!
TWILLEY: We could clearly keep talking about beans all day, but we can take that offline. For supporters, there is a ton more bean-y goodness in our special newsletter, with all the extras, so watch out for that and get your name on the list at gastropod.com/support.
GRABER: Thanks so much this episode to Ken Albala, Steve Sando, Clare Mukankusi, and Paul Gepts and his colleagues at UC Davis. We have links to their books, beans, and research at gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: And as always, thanks to our amazing producer Claudia Geib. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.