Heirloom Beans: Mexico’s Legumes Elevated to a Higher Power

The Hunt for Mexico’s Heirloom Beans, a New Yorker Magazine feature written by Burkhard Bilger and published 4/23/2018, starts and ends with eating.  Thanks to my Teotitlan del Valle friend Scott Roth for sending me this article, lengthy but worth the time to read.

For northern North Americans unfamiliar with bean culture, we think of this legume as filler, to be mashed, seasoned, dipped into with a tortilla chip, pushed aside or preceded with a Bean-O pill to cut intestinal gas.

Eat your lima beans, I remember my mother saying. Ugh. It wasn’t until much later, when I learned to cook fresh limas, that I began to appreciate the oft-maligned bean.

For Mexicans, where the bean originates, it is a staple of life, high in protein and flavorful in its pure and simple state of existence. Cook it simply in water and salt, says Rancho Gordo heirloom bean maven Steve Sando, and you will love the taste and texture.

Rafael Mier holds Jaguar Beans, a rare, ancient strain

Here in the south of the United States of America where I have lived for the past thirty years, the traditionalists gravitate toward black-eyed peas and collards. This is especially true during New Years, when the black-eyed pea is center stage on every table to signify a new year of abundance. I’ve even seen the tradition carried to snow-bound climes by southerners yearning for a bit of home. 

Out west where I grew up, my family’s preferred bean was pinto, always industrially grown and originating from a sixteen-ounce tin that my mother could easily open with her electric can opener.  With contents dumped into the Farberware two-quart saucepan, gas burner turned to high, the beans were ready to serve in minutes to accompany the chewy, gray-center ground sirloin she called hamburger, if they didn’t burn first.

Weighing native beans, Teotitlan del Valle Market

I used to think that black beans were a gourmet delight when I started living in Oaxaca in 2006. I used to think that big, plump beans were better than dwarf-like varieties. Little did I pay attention to the fact that the bigger the bean, the more likely they are to be genetically modified. I didn’t realize that there are almost as many varieties of beans in Mexico as there is corn, based on regional differences and genetic adaptation to soil and climate.

In December 2017, I wrote a blog post, Union Zapata Hosts Biodiversity Fair in Oaxaca. Native corn, squash and beans took center stage. I went there in search of red, purple, yellow, and blue corn. I left with a deeper appreciation for what it takes to sustain a traditional milpa — the bean, corn, squash native agricultural growing exchange that provides complex protein intake for indigenous people.

Here is my challenge: Think about your own experience about beans growing up. Add your memories in the comment section. Share your recipes. Treat yourself to some real beans!

Mexican yellow bean soup, Norma’s made-up recipe

Scott Roth with old Zapotec rug


6 responses to “Heirloom Beans: Mexico’s Legumes Elevated to a Higher Power

  1. I’d have read the article anyway, because I get the print version of New Yorker, but thanks to you, I made sure I wouldn’t miss it, and then passed it on to a server in a local restaurant. My first memory of really good beans was in Oaxaca: the place where I was staying didnt provide food, but the resident cook used to give me black beans just because she was nice. It was a revelation.
    Then there was the time when a young woman, employed by La Mano Magica, got a free trip to Canada and stayed with us….she somehow, quite innocently, brought into Toronto: black beans, tortillas, queso de Oaxaca and I think even an onion…..made us a fabulous dish of tostadas with frijol and cheese, she never thought of any problems with bringing these into Canada and thankfully, was not caught. Would be different today, I’m sure.

    • Kate, yes, the black bean revelation! Oh, so delicious. Happy the article brought up these great memories for you. Now, I guess, black beans are somewhat a staple in the Western Hemisphere. A rarity then. Lucky for your friend and luckier for everyone who enjoyed what she made. Thanks for sharing.

  2. After reading Steve Sando’s New Yorker article & your blog, I’m vowing to replace aged supermarket beans in my diet with more freshly harvested beans (such as from Rancho Gordo) . And to cook them more simply. Even if the fresh ones are three times the cost of supermarket beans they are important enough in my diet to eat the very best. Beans are also now another indigenous edible to search out in Mexican mercados and restaurants.

  3. Norma- Speaking of beans I packed 2 kilos of milpa frijolon bought in Tlacolula and anxious to try them out incognito. Having never tasted them they are like gold to me. My mom preferred the pinto also but at least it was cooked low and slow in olla de barro. I’ve been blessed. The only canned food my siblings ate was ravioli and Campbell’s chicken noodle-go figure.

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