BEANS - A History

Book Review by Franz Scheurer


There appears to be very little Ken Albala doesn’t know about the humble bean and it’s not just all hot air either. He pursues the history and use of the oft-maligned bean in a geographical and cultural context, and although this is mainly a tale of history, he also gives many classical recipes. This slim paperback is divided into 11 chapters, including ones dedicated to lentils, peas, fava, mung, lima and soy beans.


Albala is obviously more dedicated than most, and I would like to quote him from the preface of his book: “When I first proposed a history of beans, little did I suspect what I was getting myself into. To truly understand beans, to become one with my subject, I resolved to eat beans every single day, ideally a new species or variety with every meal. Soon my cabinets were bulging with heirloom appaloosas, delicate Spanish Toosanos, football-shaped lablabs, specimens from the far-flung corners of the globe, from tiny teparies to mammoth Greek gigandas. There followed regular visits to ethnic grocery stores, especially Indian for every form of dhal, hours spent hulling and peeling fresh favas, and frenzied internet bean forays in the middle of the night. I munched pickled lupines for breakfast, snacked on Japanese wasabi peas, frightened the children with sticky natto and with nearly every supper I pulled out the brimming bean pot. Chickpea flour panisses, South Indian dhosas and African bean fritters followed suit. There was always a bowl or two of beans soaking with zen-like patience on the countertop. I made it about a year before giving up. I still try a new bean every week or so, but I am happy to say my system is relieved to be done with this prolonged and sometimes gruelling experiment. No matter what anyone says, tolerance for the bean and its gaseous effects does not develop over time. You just get used to bloat. At least I can say I am full of beans”.


This illustrates the lengths the author went to, to bring us an authentic and inclusive history on a food item that is steadily losing ground in a increasingly more affluent world. The bean (with the exception of the humble and versatile soy bean) is fast relegated to ‘cucina povera’. We can only hope this book helps rekindle a curiosity in all of us to explore the flavours and textures of the world of legumes. There is life beyond baked beans!


I must say that not only did I learn a lot from this book, but I found some of the historic recipes enchanting. We all know that beans are great food for vegetarians, but one recipe (page 194) particularly captured my attention, ‘An Excellent French Fricassee of Beans, So As to Resemble the Taste of Meat’.


Available from September 2007.

ISBN 978 1 84520 430 3

Published by BERG (Oxford/New York)

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