We are clearly full of beans. In the U.S. alone, we consume about 8 pounds of beans annually, per capita, and the current popularity of Mexican cuisine plays no small part. The U.S. plants about 1.6 million acres a year. Worldwide production of dry beans was over 18 million metric tons in 2016, the leading producers are Myanmar (Burma), India and Brazil.
China loves their soybeans (edamame) and mung beans, the Middle East grinds garbanzos for hummus and tahini, Mexico serves up refried pinto and black beans, Italy makes their trademark minestrone with cannellini and red kidney beans, and the U.S. favors them baked, or cajun red beans and rice. While once considered an inferior food, beans are held in high favor globally. Nothing beats a hot bowl of navy bean soup, a tasty hummus spread on pita bread, a side of baked beans with barbecue or hot dogs, a dish of buttered limas with ham, or a big spicy bowl of chili.
Domesticated beans in the Americas were found in Guitarrero Cave, an archaeological site in Peru, dating back to around the second millennium BC. For centuries, they were a staple. They could be dried and carried on ships, they lasted through a long cold winter, they could be soaked or boiled easily and they filled empty stomachs. Beans are one of the earliest cultivated plants, providing an important source of protein and nutrients throughout Old and New World history.
Fava beans were a major source of food for the ancient Israelites and are still eaten primarily in Mediterranean countries. Old Testament civilizations such as Jericho and Babylon consumed them daily. The Aztecs and Incas grew and ate beans as a major part of their diet. Other South American countries thrived on them from the seventh century BC. They were also used as counting tools and money, and appeared symbolically at weddings. Asia has eaten them for centuries, and Egyptians included them in tombs to insure voyage to the afterlife.
Italian Renaissance gourmet Bartholomew Scappi described dishes of beans, eggs, cinnamon, walnuts, sugar, onions and butter in his cookbooks. Catherine d’ Medici of Florence was supposedly so fond of Italy’s cannellini beans, she smuggled some to France when she married Henry, Duke of Orleans, later to become King Henry II of France. (You know those French chefs–beans were considered beneath them.) If this story is accurate, we can thank Queen Catherine for cassoulet, a French delicacy made with goose fat, duck or lamb and white beans. (When the Queen wanted beans, her French chefs jumped.)
During the 9th century, Charlemagne (King Charles I) restored productivity to European lands which had been ravaged by war, ordering chickpeas to become a major crop which helped prevent starvation in his vast kingdom,
Early American colonists cultivated multiple varieties. They were used in soups and stews and could be dried to help feed large families throughout the winter, when food was scarce. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed many different types of beans from his abundant garden, experimenting with different varieties and creating new recipes for his dinner guests. (Well, okay, our foodie president didn’t actually cook, but he supervised his French-trained chef.)
In the early 1900s, a man named Henry J Heinz put canned baked beans on the map, both in the U.S. and the U.K. Today, Heinz baked beans is one of the most recognizable and popular canned foods on the grocery shelves. Surprisingly, the top bean eaters in the world are the U.K. countries. Worldwide, a whopping 2 million people consume baked beans daily.
What’s more American than franks and beans? Or chili? Or navy bean soup? So cook some up and enjoy.