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Old World Beans

In the pre-Columbian era the people of western Asia, North Africa, and Europe grew and ate beans of the species Viciafaba, better known as fava beans. Favas may have originated in Africa though farmers domesticated them in western Asia. Resembling large lima beans, favas were a staple crop of the prehistoric people of Iran, North Africa, and the rest of the Mediterranean Basin. Egyptians, Hebrews, and Greeks all grew favas. In Assyria, Phoenicia, and Palestine, people ate favas. Cooks ground them into flour for bread or made them into pottage. Today, the people of Italy, Spain, and the Middle East still eat them. The species name faba, we have seen, is Latin for bean. The tern faba gave its name to Fabius, one of the patrician families of Rome. In taking this name, the Fabius family claimed that their ancestors had been bean farmers. Although it may seem strange for a wealthy family to claim so humble a pedigree, one must remember that the Romans, even those who did not farm, idealized the life of simple peasants, believing that the Roman virtues of self-reliance, hard work, piety, and frugality had their origin in the countryside. The Fabius family, in identifying with beans, claimed to have these rural values.

Of course fava beans predated the Fabius family. As early as 6500 BCE, the people of Nazareth gathered beans, though they may not have cultivated them this early. Sometime before the third millennium humans domesticated favas, probably in the Fertile Crescent, and by this millennium were growing them in Spain, Portugal, northern Italy, Switzerland, Greece, and the Middle East. In classconscious Egypt and Europe, the poor ate favas as a substitute for the meat that they could not afford. As a rule, an inverse relationship existed between beans and meat. The more beans one ate, the less meat one consumed. In Egypt, the poor still derive their protein chiefly from beans. Egyptians eat favas with garlic, olive oil, lemon, cumin, and parsley. They eat favas even at breakfast, taking them with flat bread. The Talmud called this dish hamin. The Jews cooked hamin on Friday so that housewives did not cook on the Sabbath. According to II Samuel, beans sustained David in the wilderness.

Because fava beans tolerated frost, farmers grew them in Northern Europe. In the Roman world, as in Egypt, commoners ate beans. We have seen, however, that priests did not eat beans, a fact that Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century CE, attributed to the belief that beans caused insomnia and weakened the senses. Pliny, and before him the poet Horace, wrote that peasants ate beans. The Roman agriculturalist Columella, writing in the first century CE, asserted that beans were the fare of artisans and the poet Martial noted that construction workers ate them. The Greeks and Romans ate favas with garlic and onion. Other people in Europe and Asia ate beans with wheat, millet, or rice. The Romans knew that beans enriched the soil and devised a two-field system, growing grain one year and a legume, often beans, in the second. Although the Romans appreciated the value of this rotation, only modern science discovered why beans restored the soil. Like all legumes, beans form nodules on their roots. These nodules are home to a type of bacteria that converts nitrogen gas in the soil into ammonium nitrate, a compound of nitrogen that plant roots can absorb. Not only do beans absorb this nitrogen, but also some of it is left over to feed next season’s crop. The Romans took favas to the lands they conquered, aiding the spread of beans throughout Europe.

In the ninth century Charlemagne, king of the Franks, ordered farmers to plant beans and chickpeas so that his army could feed on them as it marched through the land. Christians, observing a Spartan diet during Lent, ate beans then. Monks who did not eat meat got their protein from beans. After the 10th century the cultivation of beans became widespread throughout Europe. Because they are nutritious, one writer credits beans with increasing population and longevity in the Middle Ages.

Not everyone celebrated beans. One Greek medical authority remarked that gladiators who ate beans grew fat and had bad dreams. The physician Benedict of Nursia believed that beans caused depression. A third commentator remarked that pregnant women who consumed beans might give birth to a lunatic or fool.

The British, who still grow favas, call them Windsor or broad beans. John Gerard christened the fava bean as the “Great Garden Bean.” The contribution of beans to British agriculture and cuisine may have prompted friends to call one another “old bean.” Stockmen in Europe feed favas to their animals. Despite widespread cultivation, favas are not entirely safe. Some Europeans developed favism, a rare allergic reaction to fava beans that causes anemia and jaundice. Because Phaseolus did not cause this reaction, it is possible that Europeans adopted these beans partly because they did not cause favism. Today, China is the world’s leading producer of favas, though they must compete with soybeans and corn for acreage.

Whereas Europeans linked the consumption of beans with poverty, no such stigma existed in India, where all classes, even priests, ate beans. Although the people of India ate meat in antiquity, about 600 BCE the diet shifted from meat to beans. Indian religious dogma upheld beans as a pure food fit for all. Beans contributed a greater proportion of protein to the people of India than to the people in any other land. Indians ate several species of beans including mung beans, urd beans, moth beans, and rice beans. Because urd beans were black, they were known as kali, meaning “black.” Indians made urd beans into pancakes. At funerals, Indians offered beans to the deceased to aid their transition to another life. Approving of beans, Buddha found them “full of soul qualities.” Mung beans and rice are a typical and nourishing dish in India. The people of southern India make urd beans into steamed bean cakes. Like tepary beans in America, farmers in India prize moth beans for their drought tolerance. Rice beans grow wild in India, Thailand, and Vietnam and were domesticated in Southeast Asia. Nutritious, rice beans have a high content of calcium. The guar bean, a native of India, is used as food and fodder. In the United States, manufacturers process guar beans into guar gum, which is used to make explosives, ceramics, crayons, detergents, ink, clothes, ice cream, sausage, cheese, and cosmetics.

In China and Japan, farmers grow adzuki beans, renowned for their sweetness. The people of East Asia make red bean paste from adzukis. The Japanese make a cake of rice and adzukis. Adzuki beans are found in soup and as a paste that is spread on toast. People make adzukis into pancakes and even ice cream. The Chinese make mung beans into noodles. In China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, people eat the bean sprouts of mung beans.

Christopher Cumo

Further Reading

Albala, Ken. Beans: A History. Oxford: Berg, 2007.

Denny, Roz. Beans. Des Plaines, IL: Heinemann Library, 1998.

Hughes, Meredith Sayles. Spill the Beans and Pass the Peanuts: Legumes. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1999.

Johnson, Sylvia A. Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans: How the Foods of the Americas Changed Eating Around the World. New York: Atheneum Books, 1997.

Silverstein, Alvin, and Virginia Silverstein. Beans: All about Them. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1975.

Sumner, Judith. American Household Botany: A History of Useful Plants, 1620-1900. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2004.

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