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Cool Beans

How the humble legume — especially heirloom varieties — became the go-to ingredient for home cooks this year

Beans of various shapes and colors.

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Earlier this year, on a lazy Sunday afternoon during the chilly, cloudy season that passes for winter in Los Angeles, I sat on a friend’s apartment floor and ate a bowl of broad beans. Brothy and luscious in a shallow ceramic bowl, served with oven-fresh focaccia and a zingy glass of natural white wine, the beans were as wholesome and luxurious as linen sheets; their slow-rendered creaminess recalled pork belly or flourless chocolate cake, but instead of indulged, I felt nourished in a way I still don’t quite understand, far beyond a satisfying lunch. For a long time, there had been some unmet need — a silent, miserable hunger. And then there were beans.

Beans felt like caring for myself and everyone else I cooked for. Maybe they were. Over the last year, I’ve tinkered with Instant Pot cooking times; simmered pots on the stove on Sundays; and hand-shelled fat white coco de Paimpol beans during a month in France. My bean ardor made me see them everywhere: a bowl of heirloom beans served with tahini at the restaurant Kismet; a bean salad on Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat so good-looking I wished for it to appear magically in my own kitchen; and endless pots and bowls across Instagram stories. Friends joined Rancho Gordo’s bean club, Slacks sprouted bean-lovers rooms, even my olive oil subscription came with beans.

Beans have a long and admirable history of keeping our ancestors alive. Purists might insist the word “bean” applies only to the descendants of Phaseolus vulgaris and Phaseolus lunatus, domesticated in the Americas and one of the several intertwined crops that provided superior nutrition to a host of civilizations; however, most people don’t differentiate between peas, lentils, and other legumes that act like beans. Knobby, pale yellow chickpeas, tiny red adzuki beans, bright green double-skinned favas, pinpoint multicolored lentils, speckled and hardy pintos, fat off-white limas, and purple-black runner beans have provided protein and pleasure to wildly disparate humans. As Samin Nosrat put it to me, “Every culture has a bean.”

From almost every conceivable angle — convenience, culinary, conservation — beans are the perfect food. They are cheap, and last for years when dried. Cooked with little more than salt, water, and time, they can offer sustenance for the whole week. They can be reliably cooked well, with just enough variance to satisfy tinkerers, and their uses are endless (Frijoles de olla! Rajma masala! Pizza!). Their abundant fiber nourishes the gut bacteria that research suggests help modulate everything from our immune system to our moods. Even at the plant level, they make soil healthier, by forming a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. When dried, multicolored heirloom beans are also very, very pretty.

Purple and tan-and-purple-flecked beans in a blue bowl.
Cranberry beans from Rancho Gordo, also known as Borlotti, Tongues of Fire, and Cacahuete

But why are beans trending right now? Tamar Adler, whose 2011 book An Everlasting Meal helped popularize the salty, brothy, fatty pot of beans, says that back then, people used to look at her funny when she described her cooking method of submerging beans in water, then adding salt, oil, and whatever aromatics she had on hand, as if it were “witch’s brew.” In 2015, Nosrat launched a Bean Month on her blog, she says in hopes of convincing home cooks to just try making beans, an ingredient she’s loved since her days cooking at Chez Panisse (where Adler spent time as well). This year, when the food writer Lukas Volger hosted a “31 days of beans” on his Instagram account, the enthusiasm was already there. “People were primed and ready for it,” he says.

Many Extremely 2019 foodstuffs — natural wine, sourdough bread, fat knobby grains like bulgar — wear halos of authenticity and goodness. Beans carry that same rustic, good-for-you energy and are much easier to make than a loaf of sourdough. They’re the cultured, real version of fake meat — the original protein pellet, a whole food cooked on a stove that also can help heal the environment, if largely in an unexamined, unsystematic, Step 4 Profit???? kind of way. Flygskam, or flight shame, hasn’t hit the anxious liberal mainstream in America yet, but meat shame, especially industrial meat shame, seems to be taking hold; nearly everyone I spoke to about their love of beans said they wanted to cut back on meat.

But no one is eating beans just because they’re virtuous. Cooked right, their earthy flavor is mild yet compelling, sometimes nutty, sometimes more vegetal, and the lush yet hearty texture of a perfectly cooked bean is a delicacy. And then there’s the pleasure of discovery. When I told a friend who is the kind of food nerd with season tickets to Next that there were such a thing as heirloom beans, she widened her eyes and said, “Like tomatoes?” If squeezing lumpen and speckled tomatoes is a limited summer pleasure, heirloom beans deliver a jolt of rarity year-round. Mass-market grocery-store beans tend to be old and therefore hard to cook, in addition to fairly plain. Heirlooms come from a world outside of grocery shelves, one where human ingenuity and nature’s random beauty combine to create little, useful, edible jewels: fat, flat Christmas lima beans mottled in burgundy; goldenrod-ochre Paiute teparies; pale green, stretched-out flageolets; black- and white-speckled varieties called calypso and vaquero.

It’s impossible to talk about heirloom beans without talking about Rancho Gordo, the heirloom bean company founded by Steve Sando, catapulted to fame by Thomas Keller, and generally beloved by the food nerds of the world. Sando’s lovingly curated selection of beans, including rare varieties sourced from Mexico by Sando and his business partners, Yunuén Carrillo Quiroz and Gabriel Cortés García, might as well have been precision engineered to captivate the overeducated, overworked, underpaid slice of the population who are most likely, say, to read this far into a story about beans (thanks).

Even better than a single bag of heirloom beans is membership in the hyper-exclusive Rancho Gordo bean club. Being a member means that four times a year, you receive a box stuffed with a variety of heirloom beans, as well as bean-nerd-friendly extras like cumin or, in the case of this month’s shipment, popcorn. Bean club is so popular it’s often closed to new members (like right now). Volger joined two years ago, when he happened to see it was open. He texted five other friends to give them the heads up, and they all thanked him effusively. My friend Max joined after no one gifted him the company’s massive 20-pound box of beans listed in his wedding registry; a lifelong Angeleno and vegetarian, he says he loves beans because of all the different recipes his mother, also vegetarian, cooked when he was growing up. Tejal Rao, the California restaurant critic for the New York Times whose work often features bean recipes, gave up her bean club membership when she moved to Los Angeles, only to rejoin upon her arrival. “I started to run very low on beans! I don’t exclusively buy from Rancho Gordo, but I wanted to have a consistent source.”

White beans in a pink bowl.
Cassoulet beans from Rancho Gordo, also known as Tarbais beans
Chickpeas in a yellow bowl.
Chickpeas grown locally in Southern California

In a recent Strategist feature, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, Lisa Lucas, cited her bean club membership as something she couldn’t live without. There is some sort of ineffable yet undeniable sharing of vibes between a shelf overflowing with books and a pantry overflowing with beans; as someone with feet in both of those worlds, I can instantly think of several people I know, not including myself, whose homes contain both. The writer Carmen Maria Machado recently enthused to me about how much she loved cooking beans at home for herself and her wife — cranberry beans are a favorite.

For all the emphasis on heirlooms and rustic cooking methods, the rise of bean nerdery can also be traced to a much normier development: the Instant Pot. Instant is a misnomer; the viral pressure cooker doesn’t cook beans any faster, necessarily, than on the stove, except maybe by saving the soaking time (though whether soaking is truly necessary is also a subject of much debate in Bean World). The Instant Pot offers a different convenience: not having to think about what’s cooking in it at all. Simmering beans on the stovetop requires small, constant amounts of attention, checking water levels, frequent tasting, and just the low-grade knowledge that your stove is on in your house.

Stovetop cooking tends to result in a more satisfying and flavorful bean broth, and it maxes out the sense of alchemical accomplishment. But sometimes beans are best when they are as simple as possible, even if the results are not perfect. I put chickpeas or pinto beans in the Instant Pot when I’m on deadline, or, honestly, if I just want to spend my Saturday playing video games in a trance-like stupor, with no risk of burning my dinner. Instant Pot and Bean Club are two sides of the same convenience coin, at least when it comes to reducing the amount of mental space good-enough beans need to take up. Bean Club selects and sends the cool beans to you; the Instant Pot cooks up the cool beans while you work, or recover from working. In her Strategist piece, Lukas writes, “I might have stopped cooking had it not been for the Instant Pot and the Rancho Gordo Bean Club.”

Most food trends, especially home-cooking trends, live and die by Instagram, and until now, beans had the deck stacked against them. Raw heirlooms can resemble gems, but even the fanciest rubies and opals cook up white, brown, or black. Maybe the final kick beans needed was the great Instagram aesthetic realignment, when the platform turned away from hyper-perfect, posed, artful photos captioned with quirky emoji to messy, seemingly unedited, candid photos, preferably ones where the caption discusses your recent battle with crippling anxiety. The rise of Instagram stories, where you don’t even need a caption about feelings to justify an ugly photo, has turned mundane camera-phone videos and snaps into badges of accomplishment, first for you, then for the recipe writer you tagged. Nothing says authenticity more than a bowl of saucy cooked beans, fancied up maybe by a handmade earth-toned ceramic bowl, nary a flower in sight.

The trend that defined the last Instagram aesthetic was fancy toast, mostly though not exclusively avocado. It was bright, colorful, customizable, virtuous, and pleasing when shot from above, the avocado a just-unfamiliar-enough ingredient to the many non-Latinx white people popularizing the fruit to make said people feel interesting for cooking with it. Not your mother’s sun-dried tomatoes! But avocados were trending before the Aesthetic found them. In 2009, I spent a lot of time deep in the network of food blogs run by and for people with chronic diseases or otherwise constricted diets, which would later become known as the wellness internet. Avocado toast was popular, framed as an appetizing way to enjoy toast if you were avoiding dairy, whether due to veganism or a health reason or a probably misguided cleanse. It was popular, in the way that a lot of food hacks, like coconut flour muffins and agave, ugh, everything, were popular: as a means to an end. When avocado toast began appearing on menus and in food magazine recipes a few years later, I was confused. Didn’t we all know about this? Was everyone on a cleanse?

Avocado toast became a cliche, a performance, a fetish, a false symbol of excess standing in for missing capital — if we can’t have houses, we’ll have avocados — and fuel for cartel violence in Mexico. For now, beans seem to be in a similar cultural place that avocados were in 2009: enjoyed by a small, committed community, maybe a little decontextualized and misunderstood, but not yet leveraged for online influence or irrevocably stripped from their cultural roots. It’s a little worrying, from an avocadoization front, that in 2019 lots of middle-class white people cooked up chickpeas in coconut milk and turmeric and referred to the recipe as The Stew. So what if we just… skipped that cycle this time? What if everyone could just love beans and not cash in on it, in money or likes?

Beans are not just an affordable food, but a food associated with poverty, and they’ve long been stigmatized as such. The bean recipe popularized by Adler and Nosrat and others is based on a Tuscan recipe; Tuscans were derided as mangia-fagioli, or bean eaters, because they were too poor to afford meat. Bean is also at the root of an anti-Mexican slur here in the U.S. Generally, in mainstream American culture, beans have been devalued as somehow “ethnic” or reduced to fart jokes. Bean fetishization would be only the other side of that ugly, tarnished coin.

But I also don’t think beans need to be simple, that no fine dining restaurant should dare to foam a chickpea. Rao says she does not understand why a perfectly cooked bean, at home or in a restaurant, moves her, but it does. “My grandmother offers pucks of roasted besan, a kind of chickpea flour, held together with ghee and sugar, on a little altar to her gods,” Rao says. “That gets at what I love about cooking beans — transforming something plain and unpromising into something so ridiculously deluxe you can offer it to your gods.”

Maybe beans fascinate because of their dual nature; they’re both beautiful and plain, hard and tender, simple and luxurious, and untangling one from the other is impossible, maybe even wrong. Letting beans simmer on a stove for an hour or two is the opposite of productivity, and yet it yields riches. They’re a little magic spell we can still perform, coaxing lushness out of a hard nubbin of a seed with water, a little fat, and time.

Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.
Nick Iluzada is a designer and snack enthusiast in Los Angeles.