Gems, Jewels and Beans…
Last winter, right before Covid erupted into our midst, I had the opportunity to visit the Tucson Gem and Mineral show in Arizona. Sure, I’d been told just how big the event was, how every year the whole city of Tucson surrenders itself to an ultimate “rock show.” But I wasn’t prepared for the scale of the event; block after block of tents, and hotel rooms and pavilions and parking lots and convention center halls and county fairgrounds crammed with vendors offering every kind of crystal and gem and mineral for sale by the piece, the kilogram, the pallet, or the ton. There were hollow amethysts geodes big enough to park a motorcycle in and tiny opals that flash with kaleidoscopic displays of light and color. Every kind of green and blue could be found hiding in heaps of jade and turquoise alongside other stones that seemed like fossilized rainbows. The variety of beautiful rocks coming out of the ground was overwhelming and it seems marvelous that the dark, sunless earth beneath our feet can be capable of producing such a majestic display of color. Of course, what’s true for jewels is true for beans too!
One year I tilled up the level acre of ground I have in my front yard and planted a row of every kind of bean I could find seed for. I had over 30 varieties planted when I was done, not including fava beans or garbanzo beans, as they are not true beans. Yes, favas and garbanzos are legumes but they are more closely related to vetches than to kidney beans. True beans are classified as Phaseolus varieties and they evolved in the “New World,” having been selected from their wild cousins and cultivated and tamed by Pre-Columbian indigenous farmers across the middle Americas. I planted red beans, black beans, striped beans, dotted beans, green beans, yellow beans, pink beans, white beans splashed with color….an overflowing treasure chest of lustrous little jewels that had been saved by different farmers over the centuries, planted side by side so that I could judge them on their merits. My experiment proved one thing to me- there is an obvious reason why the common Pinto bean is SO common in the supermarket!
We humans make a fetish out of rarity; black carbon that has been compressed into a briquette form is valued (a little) for its use as a barbecue fuel. Take that same carbon and compress it deep in the earth under millions of tons of rock for millions of years and you’ll get a diamond- rarer and more expensive. The Pinto bean is like a charcoal briquette- valued, for sure, and useful, but not precious enough to put on a wedding ring. Planted next to so many of its colorful, mottled, striped, speckled, spotted leguminous cousins, and given the same regimen of sun, soil, water, the Pinto bean grossly out-produced all of its colorful rivals. My fresh Pinto beans tasted great too, and like all really fresh beans, they didn’t take long to cook up tender and savory with no ” overnight pre-soaking” ritual necessary. The efficiency, economy, and practicality of this bean is astonishing. So, this year I didn’t grow Pinto beans for you. Instead, I chose to plant Tongue of Fire beans because they’re beautiful- a bit rarer to find in the marketplace maybe, and not necessarily tastier than their common cousins, but gorgeous.
We’re going to pull up every mature bean plant this week and strip off every bean. Fall is approaching and we’re scampering to open up as much ground as we can so we can begin planting for winter harvests. Some of the beans that we pick will be rattling around inside completely dried pods. These beans may look “dried” but they have a great deal of residual moisture in them and they will cook very promptly compared to some store bought dried beans. I’ve been scandalized at different moments in my life when the dried beans I’d gotten in the store took hours to cook- they must have been SO old! Once you’ve shelled your beans (a good chore for any kids lurking about) then give them a quick look through to take out any damaged or withered beans before putting them in a pot of water and bringing them to a simmer. Check the beans every so often – they won’t take long to cook. True, as the beans cook they will lose the cute red markings that made them so attractive raw, but they’re going to taste great. Or maybe you don’t cook these beans at all. If you were to store these beans in a cool, dry place, they’d make perfect seed stock for your own backyard bean garden next spring. This is one reason why beans are even more valuable than mineral jewels; you can’t plant a sapphire back in the earth and return in four months to harvest a bucket of gems.
A lot of the beans we pick today and tomorrow will be harvested at the fresh “shelly-bean” stage. These bean pods are fully filled out with plump beans but have not dried out. These beans will even take less time to cook than their recently dried friends. The pods are a bit more difficult to open than the dried pods but it’s no big struggle and they’re a very pretty red color. This bright pod might seem like a very frivolous fashion-forward statement coming from a humble bean plant, but it’s actually a very practical aspect of the Tongue of Fire bean. Most Tongue of Fire beans are harvested at this full-pod but tender stage, the beans being plucked from among green leaves, and the bright red of the pod makes the beans very easy for the picker to see as they hang in the foliage. If you get beans that have been harvested at this young stage you should store them in the refrigerator until use so that they don’t wilt. These fresh beans would be great in soups and bean salads, which brings a last comparison between beans and jewels to mind; Marilyn Monroe sang “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” and I’m not going to argue with her, but you can’t eat jewels.
© 2020 Essay and photos by Andy Griffin.