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Growing our own dried beans

October 5, 2014

The other week I was helping folks bag potatoes at local organic farm, Let It Grow. Among other things, they grow a local variety of black bean that are apparently unique to the Willamette Valley. I don’t have any pictures of them, but the plant is a short bush bean with vibrant purple flowers and the beans themselves are at least a couple times the size of your normal black bean and also round, rather than oblong. They had a nice, succulent savoriness to go with their rotund appearance. Local breeds fascinate me. In Chinese, there’s a special term for such things: you simply add the word tu, 土, meaning “earth”, before the species name. There are tu dogs and tu pigs, and of course tu language and tu food. Tu is also a bit of an insult. It implies rusticity and a lack of worldliness. Think of provincial and unsophisticated. Given how much of China is still agricultural, and how much of that agriculture is small-scale farming or pastoralism, and given the huge amount of time–millenia–in which these small-scale farming communities have existed, local breeds of plants and animals abound and the differences between them can be huge. For example, one community in easter Qinghai Province has a breed of miniature, black and white spotted yaks. As I recall, the adults only come up to about my shoulder. Yet a few hours’ drive away, the pasture lands are filled with enormous black beasts, yaks that would tower above most breeds of cattle in the US. Another community a few hours north has a special breed of tiny black pigs, that look like shrunken version of the acorn-eating swine that provide Spain with its famous hams. Yet, though they look very similar, the flavors of these two animals couldn’t be any more different. The little Chinese pigs are especially “pork-y” tasting, I think. In fact, I actually find it kind of gross.

Pig

All of the above thoughts lead me to my actual topic: this year our garden grew Scarlet Runner Beans! They came from an unmarked envelope of giant beans that had been sitting in our seed box for at least four years. On a whim, I planted them in a few pots just to see what would happen. They took off, and so won themselves a place around our raised bed. Their flowers should have tipped us off as to what they were–bright, bright crimson red–but none of us have much experience with these beans, apparently. Some people even tried to harvest them when the pods were still green, an apparent non-no as, like many dried bean varieties, Scarlett Runners are toxic when unripe and raw. We left most of them to dry on the vine and then I collected them in a jar.

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Scarlet Runner Beans

I have a friend who worked as a field botanist for years. When he visited our house, he told me what our beans were and also reminded me to make sure to not eat them raw. The name was familiar to me. My mother’s people were farmers and even those who went on to do other things with their lives have still tended to grow their own vegetables over the years, originally out of frugality, but now out of habit, I suppose. I recalled the name from overheard conversations between my old relatives, and a phone call confirmed that I had almost certainly eaten this bean as a child–“Scarlets are just wonderful,” says my aunt. At any rate, they are a traditional American crop and a long-time favorite of home gardeners. Yet they are one of those crops that did not make the transition to industrial agriculture. I’m not sure why–they seem no more delicate than any other bean and they have fairly heavy yields. They are also delicious–slightly meaty tasting and a little sweet.

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Pods allowed to dry on the plant.

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We had two varieties–purple and white. They came from separate plants, although this was the only noticeable difference. Taste-wise, they are the same.

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So, a food that was once common in the diets of Americans has since become almost unknown. Fortunately, Scarlets remain popular with those who garden.

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