We’re clearly full of beans. In the U.S. alone, we have about 8 pounds of beans annually, per capita, and the current popularity of Mexican cuisine plays no small part. The U.S. plants around 1.6 million acres a year. Worldwide production of dry beans was over 18 million metric tons in 2016, the top producers are Myanmar (Burma), India and Brazil.
China enjoys their soybeans (edamame) and mung beans, the Middle East grinds garbanzos for hummus and tahini, Mexico serves up refried pinto and black beans, Italy makes their signature minestrone with cannellini and red kidney beans, and the U.S. favors them baked, or cajun red beans and rice. While once considered an inferior food, beans are held in high favor globally.
Domesticated beans in the Americas were located in Guitarrero Cave, an archaeological site in Peru, dating back to around the 2nd millennium BC. They could be dried and carried on ships, they continued through a long cold winter, they could be soaked or boiled readily and they filled empty stomachs. Beans are one of the earliest cultivated crops, providing an important source of protein and nutrition throughout Old and New World history.
Fava beans were a major source of food to the ancient Israelites and are still eaten primarily in Mediterranean countries. Old Testament civilizations like Jericho and Babylon consumed them daily. The Aztecs and Incas grew and ate legumes as a important part of their diet. They were also used as counting tools and cash, and appeared symbolically at weddings.
Italian Renaissance gourmet Bartholomew Scappi described dishes of beans, eggs, cinnamon, walnuts, sugar, onions and butter in his cookbooks. Catherine d’ Medici of Florence was supposedly so fond of Italy’s cannellini beans, she smuggled a few to France when she married Henry, Duke of Orleans, later to become King Henry II of France. (You know those French chefs–beans were considered beneath them.) If this story is true, we can thank Queen Catherine for cassoulet, a French delicacy made with goose fat, duck or lamb and white beans. (When the Queen needed beans, her French chefs jumped)
During the 9th century, Charlemagne (King Charles I) revived productivity to European lands that had been ravaged by war, ordering chickpeas to become a major crop which helped prevent starvation in his vast kingdom,
Early American colonists cultivated multiple kinds. They have been used in soups and stews and may be dried to feed large families throughout the winter, when food was scarce. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed many different kinds of beans out of his abundant garden, experimenting with different varieties and creating new recipes for his dinner guests. (Well, okay, our foodie president didn’t actually cook, but he chased his French-trained chef.)
In the early 1900s, a man named Henry J Heinz put canned baked beans on the map, both in the U.S. and the U.K. Today, Heinz baked beans is one of the most recognizable and popular canned foods on the grocery shelves. Surprisingly, the top bean eaters in the world are the U.K. nations. Worldwide, a whopping 2 million individuals consume baked beans daily.
What’s more American than franks and beans? Or chili?