Pythagoreans Beware!

by Andy Griffin

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Pythagorus, the early Greek philosopher, is known to history for being the first person to demonstrate the theorem that with any right triangle the sum of the squares of each of the two sides is equal to the square of the hypotenuse. Most folks are not aware that Pythagorus also stated that it is evil to eat beans. These two pythagorean theorems were of equal significance in his eyes. Modern day math students staring down at a glop of green beans boiled to gray leaking out across their cafeteria trays might be inclined to agree with the ancient master. It falls upon me, a mediocre mathematician at best, but a fan of Pythagorus nonetheless, to defend the bean and declare it tasty, nutritious, wholesome, even holy.

Pythagorus lived in a time when wise men were permitted to be wise about everything without being shoved into mental cubicles called "disciplines." His discovery of the theorem concerning right triangles gave Pythagorus an appreciation for the mathematical cadences by which nature dances over us, under us and through us. He would be impressed with the recent discovery of DNA and would nod his head approvingly at its double helix form. Pythagorus would be fascinated to watch the geometrical progression of cell division unfold under his gaze through a microscope, but this ancient thinker would hardly be surprised. His inquiring eye noted numerical laws on display throughout all of creation from a triangular shadow cast by the sun shining through an open door to the vast arcs described by the stars and planets wheeling over our heads. His observation that strict ratios are revealed to the ear when a harmonic effect is produced by plucking several harp strings at once gave Pythagorus the idea that beautiful music is no less than the audible expression of a numeric logic that vibrates throughout all being. For a mystic of Pythagorus' stature it was but a hop and a skip from the audible to the edible.

The canned string beans that disgrace many a school lunch with their salty metallic flavor and soft, semi-decomposed texture could not have been fed by the ancient Greeks to their most undeserving salves. Prior to the Columbian collision with America the old world knew only peas, vetches, lupines, lentils and garbanzos. The beans that so offended Pythagorus would have been the fava beans, which, botanically speaking are a large seeded vetch.

Favas were well adapted to the Mediterranean basin because the plant, like all vetches, is hardy to cold and grows most vigorously during the cool wet months of winter. This capacity of the fava to thrive during the rainy season meant widespread cultivation was possible without the need for complicated irrigation practices. The fava, being a legume, fixes its own available nitrogen and so requires minimal fertilization. Such ease of production made the fava a ubiquitous and invaluable part of the diet for most ancient Mediterranean peoples. Pythagorus, by condemning the consumption of such a staple food was really going against the grain of his society.

For Pythagorus and the influential school that followed in his wake the moral life was quite literally a life lived in harmony with nature, in harmony with the "music of the spheres." Why Pythagorus found the flavorful fava bean to strike so discordant a note is a mystery to me. It must be mentioned that some people, especially those of Middle Eastern descent, may be subject to a rare genetic disease called GDP, or favism. A chemical in the bean will cause people with this genetically transmitted deficiency to die if they eat favas. Perhaps Pythagorus was concerned by the danger favism might pose to his followers. If so he never mentions it. More likely he was irritated by some ignorant slob farting during one of his metaphysical lectures or ecstatic harp recitals.

I grow fava beans on my farm but I intend no disrespect to Pythagorus. Favas taste great, and they sell well. Beyond that, cultivating fava beans serves to remind me of the quieter rhythms that pulse through life. I plant my crop as the sky darkens with the approach of falls first rainstorm. The broad beans are dark and heavy with traditions that go all the way back to the dawn of agriculture in the fertile crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. When I cast out handfuls of favas across the roughly tilled soil I, too, get to participate in something ancient. As I finish my seeding the first rain falls, settling the dust and settling my mind, as well, into the slower pace of winter.

Fava beans clothe the fields and protect them fro the hardest winter rains by growing tall and lush. At the approach of spring favas bloom with a beautiful ivory white pea-like flower that gives the air a sweet fragrance. Long leathery beans come early when our farm has little else to sell. I'll walk the rows to inspect the crop eating the fresh beans right out of the pod while my kids play hide and go seek in the dense foliage. I love fava beans and I'm happy to report that the harvest is upon us. Pythagoreans beware!

copyright 2001 Andy Griffin


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