The word “bean” can refer to several things. Generally it is used to refer to a type of food obtained from the legume family of plants.
Sometimes it is used colloquially in the broader sense of legumes such as lentils and peas; other times it refers specifically to actual beans — anything from dried beans such as Navy, Great Northern, Black and Kidney to beans eaten fresh, such as green beans and yellow beans. Some beans, such as Lima Beans and Cranberry Beans, may be eaten dried, or fresh.
The term “beans” may also be used to refer to the seeds of some other non-legume plants: castor beans, cocoa beans, coffee beans, vanilla beans, etc.
Sometimes, as in the Caribbean and American South, beans are referred to as “peas.”
See separate entries on “Dried Beans”, “Soaking Beans”, and “Brining Beans.”
Some beans eaten fresh are eaten whole, pod and all: runner beans, string beans, green beans, wax beans, etc.
Before the discovery of the New World, beans had been used for millennia in the Old World. The beans were those such as fava (broad) beans and black-eyed peas. Broad beans (aka fava / faba) were the only Beans known to Europeans before 1492. The Chinese had black-eyed peas.
Only with the New World, however, did we acquire the great variety and most common Beans now in use, such as lima, kidney, navy beans, string beans, runner beans, etc.
The ancient Egyptians grew Beans and ate them, but thought them “unclean” because they thought Beans contained the souls of the dead. Consequently, the upper class avoided them and only common people ate them.
Greek priests were forbidden to eat Beans. Pythagoras, a 6th century Greek philosopher, advised people to abstain from Beans. It’s unsure why: he didn’t elaborate. Maybe because Beans were thought at the time to hold aphrodisiac qualities; maybe a hangover of the Egyptian “souls of the dead” belief; maybe Pythagoras was one of the few people in the Mediterranean who genetically are allergic to broad beans; maybe he was advising them to stay away from politics — he may have meant the different coloured Beans used in the Greek voting system. Or, he may not have wanted them passing wind in his lecture halls. He was killed, in fact, when a mob caught him on the edge of a bean field, which he refused to enter while fleeing from them. (Another thing which makes some historians think that he was allergic to Beans.)
The Romans didn’t have any of these qualms about Beans. Beans, lentils and peas were the main source of protein for the ordinary masses, the Legions and Gladiators — though the wealthy would avoid them, thinking them plain and humble food. Romans also offered Beans in sacrifices to some of their gods.
In the Middle Ages Beans were consumed throughout Europe; the earliest known Beans in Britain are from the Iron Age at Glastonbury.
In South and Central America, the natives not only ate Beans with corn or grains, they also grew them together right in the same fields and patches. The combination of Beans and grains in their diet, as we now know from nutrition studies, gave them a complete protein — and it benefitted the soil.
There is an old English custom of including a whole bean in a special fruit cake baked especially on Twelfth Night. The man who receives the piece with the bean in it is proclaimed king for the night. There would also be a pea; the woman who found it would be pronounced Queen. If a woman found the bean, she got to pick the king, and vice versa if the man found the pea. The King and Queen would then direct the entertainment for the night and give orders to their “court”.
Literature & Lore
Four beans in a row,
One for the rook,
One for the crow,
One to rot, and one to grow.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) had this advice for newlyweds:
“Keep them to wholesome foods confin’d, Nor let them taste what causes wind:
‘Tis this the sage of Samos means, Forbidding his disciples beans.”
Despite the great wealth of the nobility in Florence, the people in the surrounding countryside of Tuscany were actually quite poor. They ate Beans a great deal, and still love Beans today. Other Italians still call Tuscans (people in Tuscany) “mangia fagioli”, meaning “bean eaters.”
To spill the beans: an old expression dating back to the 16th century.
The 19th century in America brought other bean expressions: “full of beans”, “doesn’t know beans”, “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans” and “beanpole” (applied to tall thin people.)
The 20th century also gave us bean expressions: “bean-counters”, meaning accountants, and “slam that fridge door one more time and I’m going to bean you.”
The scientific Latin names for some Beans begins with “Phaseolus” or “vigna.” Phaseolus, which means boat, is an allusion to the pod.
There are three main groupings of Beans:
- Phaseolus vulgaris, otherwise known as “common bean”, includes kidney beans, navy beans, etc;
- Phaseolus lunatus includes lima beans;
- The vigna group, grown more in Asia, includes adzuki and mung beans.
Latin: phaseolus >> Catalán: fesol>> old Spanish: frisol >> Spanish: frijol
In Spanish, a quantity of dried beans is referred to as “frijol.” A quantity of cooked-up dried beans is referred to as “frijoles.”