6 November 2018

A Mysterious Bean


Clearly what happened is that in a moment of asperity, Mohammed bin Salman wondered beneath his breath, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome journalist?”

 

A couple of weeks ago i was at the Alemany Farmers’ Market, and out of the corner of my eye as i passed a stall that had never before got my attention, i saw some interesting beans.

Hmm, i thought, they look much like my beloved cranberry beans, but there’s way too much of the cranberry red in them.  So i asked the vendor, who said, “Cranberry beans.”  Here they are:

Cranberry beans newer (Crimson?) variety

I’ve been buying cranberry beans from my vendor at the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market all this fall, spreading them out on the floor overnight to help them relax, shelling them, blanching them to kill the enzymatic activity, and freezing them so i’ll have ’em all through the winter and spring to serve folks who appreciate them.  But on only a couple of those occasions have i reserved any to simply eat all by myself.  So fine, i’ll buy ’em and eat ’em.

But when i started shelling them the next day i immediately saw that something was wrong, not only did the shells look not quite like cranberry beans, but also the beans themselves didn’t.  Like the shells, the beans had more of that cranberry color, and the shape was distinctly different: more rounded, less elongated.

Then i cooked the beans with a chopped up a carrot and onion, not salting them until they were tender to encourage a creamy texture as Harold McGee recommends.

Oh my goodness, were they ever delicious, and i don’t think it was just because i was hungry for them.  I swear they taste better than the cranberry beans i’ve been raving about for years.  So of course i went back to that vendor the next week and bought a big bag to freeze.

Then the question arose, what are these things, anyhow?  I’d read somewhere about a variety of Phaseolus vulgaris called the rattlesnake bean, and perhaps these are rattlesnakes.  Easy, i thought, since we are now blessed with an indefatigable research assistant, DuckDuckGo.

No, not easy.  I spent a couple of hours digging into rattlesnake beans before i finally convinced myself that these are not rattlesnakes.  Then i started digging into cranberry beans and spent a couple more hours.

Finally, i blundered onto a splendid Michigan State University article on the development of a new Cranberry bean variety, and everything fell into place for me when i got to the page where they charted characteristics of six varieties of this bean.

This made me feel clever and stupid simultaneously.  I mean, i always feel clever when i’ve just figured something out, but in this case i felt particularly stupid for not realizing that a bean as widely grown for millennia as the cranberry bean would not fail to have a good many heirloom varieties from natural crossbreeding, mutations, and simply farmers saving seeds from the best bush to plant next year.  Worse yet, i’ve long admired folks starting with Luther Burbank and continuing in professors in the agronomy departments of hundreds of universities who have hybridized plants on a scientific basis, so why in the world did it not immediately occur to me that the vendor who sold me those beans was simply growing a different variety from that i’d previously purchased elsewhere?

The salt in this wound is that i finally read down far enough in the Wikipedia entry on cranberry beans to see a photo of a variety called ‘Crimson’ that sure does look like the ones i bought.  Here are mine:

Cranberry beans newer (Crimson?) variety

Now click on that Wiki link and compare the Crimson variety to mine.

Case closed.   Ummm, at least for me.

P.S.  Thanks to Kristena, a very helpful volunteer with the Cooperative Extension Service to which i was led by that MSU article.  After an extended exchange with her, she provided me a definitive distinction between varieties and cultivars and thus kept me from embarrassing myself by referring to  the above varieties as cultivars.  No, they’re varieties because they’re true-to-seed, meaning that you can plant one of their seeds next year and get the same bean.

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