The Working Waterfront

In praise of the amazing bean

Five varieties tested in island garden

Sandy Oliver
Posted 2021-12-07
Last Modified 2021-12-07

Each year, drying beans ripen in the garden to provide a winter’s worth of baked beans, bean soup, or even refried beans. Traditional Maine varieties like Marfax, Tiger’s Eye, and Jacobs Cattle join Back Coco, Pintos, and Silver Cloud Cannellini.

Once dried enough in the barn that the pods snap open, I haul them into the kitchen wrapped in an old sheet and walk over them to break open as many of the pods as I can, then shake the freed beans into a pan that I take outdoors to winnow free of broken pod and dust.

I am obsessive enough, however, about the beans to sift through the remaining pods to collect the random bean not shaken out of its pod. In the process, sometimes carried out in the living room while watching TV, occasionally a bean will scurry under the table, behind the woodstove, or into the couch cushions. When I clean, I find the beans and put them in my pocket, then just before laundry discover them again, and put them in a little jar on the kitchen windowsill to sort later into their storage containers.

This tiny object contains both information and wisdom…

Ridiculous. I pondered why I chose to be so fussy about it especially since the rescue operation conserved so few beans.

Last year, there were five.

One bean is awesome. Actually, one seed of anything is awesome.

This tiny object contains both information and wisdom, and now having been grown in my particular garden, the seed adds slight bits of local experience to its basic text about how to make a green sprout, roots, leaves, blossoms, fruits, and another generation of seed. It holds instructions for the placing of leaves and making the color and shape of flowers, how to orient itself to the sun, and even sometimes how to resist disease, pests, and how to heal when a part is broken

Tossing a seed is like heaving out an encyclopedia. It’s just that a bean is larger, colorful, and rattles and skips, and, unlike a tiny carrot seed, asserts itself in my purview. So I scoop them up.

Last fall, I held the five beans in my palm and wondered how much food they would produce if I grew them. In order to find out, I planted them in their own row, separate from all the other beans I grow so that I could watch their progress. I started with a Tiger’s Eye, a flat oval golden bean with a mahogany swirl; two Kenearlys, a miniature yellow eye; Marfax, a smallish round pea bean; and a pinto or perhaps a Taylor Horticultural which is a shell bean unless you let it ripen.

The Marfax didn’t produce much. In fact, our dry bean production this summer seemed a bit behind the curve, period. Still my five beans produced half a cup which when soaked and cooked would be plenty for a hearty pot of soup cooked with a ham bone, onion, and some celery to serve two or three of us. Of course, I could have just vacuumed up that meal, composted it, or put it through the wash in my jeans pocket.

Instead, the bean blossoms adorned one corner of my garden, and the leaves nodded in breezes. I watched as pods formed, grew, dried, toughened, and beans rattled inside them. I gathered them up as carefully as I could, shelled them out, and reserved their contents. I haven’t decided if I will eat them or save to plant them next summer.

I have a lot to learn about seed saving, one of humankind’s most valuable skills. When I finally give it a try, I’ll learn a good deal more about being observant of a plant’s growth habits and productivity; learn to select carefully the seeds of the strongest and most prolific plants; and take greater care with seed storage.

These five beans were randomly saved and probably didn’t benefit from a winter spent on the kitchen window sill subject to fluctuations in temperature and moisture.

Plant them or make soup? I truly haven’t decided.

Sandy Oliver is a food historian who gardens, cooks, and writes on Islesboro.