Beans for Bedtime

Fee! Fie! Foe! Fum! I smell an acre of fava bean plants in full bloom on my farm. The sweet scent of the fava blossoms prompts me to sniff critically at contemporary accounts of Jack and his magic beanstalk. What magic can a bean possess? What variety of bean did Jack plant, anyway?  And what was really going on once-upon-a-time in fairy tale England? The vagueness of the folkloric record makes any forensic botanical taxonomy of the Jack myth speculative, but we do know when certain species of bean were introduced to Europe. First, a word of caution about beans. The word “bean,” as it’s currently used in the food press, is an imprecise term that can imply the seeds from any number of plants, mostly from the legume family, or Fabacaceae, but also from the coffee, cacao, and jelly families. When beans are mentioned in ancient, Old World sources, like the Bible’s Ezekial 4: 9, “Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and fitches, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof, [according] to the number of the days that thou shalt lie upon thy side, three hundred and ninety days shalt thou eat thereof,” the prophet was probably talking about fava beans, or Vicia faba. Before the Columbian collision with America, Europeans, Asians, and Africans were not yet acquainted with the common kidney bean, Phaseolus vulgaris, in all of its myriad glory. The legumes the Old World ate were fava beans, peas, garbanzo beans, and lupini beans. What’s interesting to Jackologists about these four ancient pulses is that they’re all planted and grown during the cool weather of winter or early spring. This makes sense, because in and around the Mediterranean basin, where these crops were developed, farmers could count on winter rains to water their crops. The pea also conforms to this evolutionary pattern, but if Jack had climbed a pea plant, we would have been told about it. It’s also remarkable that, except for the fava, none of the old world “beans” grow with any height. Fava bean plants have rigid stalks, and with good soil, adequate water, and grown using good cultural practices, they can easily reach six feet tall.By contrast, garbanzo plants have a lax habit. Lupines can be bush-like, but they’re low growing, and ramose, with solid stems, but more about that later.

Favas are called broad beans in England, and they thrive in plants thrive in Britain’s cool, moist climate. Summer in Britannia is roughly equivalent to winter in Aegyptus, and the plant has been a common food crop ever since the conquering Romans legions brought it to Northern Europe from the Middle East. Columbus encountered America in 1492, and it wasn’t long before the new beans made their mark on Old World cookery. Accounts of Jack and his magical beans first appeared in print in 1734 as The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean, but the tale of the beanstalk to the sky existed before in the oral tradition, though for exactly how long is uncertain. So, while the broad bean is the traditional English bean, it remains possible that Jack’s bean could have been any one of the more than three thousand cultivars of Phaseolus vulgaris.

Jack was sent by his mother to take the family cow to market and sell her. But he allegedly traded the cow to the first leprechaun he meets for a handful of beans. A cow was easily a family’s most important resource back during fairy tale times when eating locally and seasonally was the reality, so Jack’s exchange seemed like a stupid, doomed strategy. But supposedly when Jack planted one of the beans it grew into the stratosphere, and he was able to climb the stalk to where a giant lived in a castle set among the clouds. First Jack stole a sack of coins, then he slipped off with a goose that laid golden eggs, and finally he took a magical harp that sang. Jack killed the giant and used his new wealth to attract a lovely bride. In short, Jack owed his elevation in social status from that of a poor single cowboy living at home with his mother to being a wealthy bride-holder to a bean. The only question for those of us that would like to follow his footsteps is, “which kind of bean do we plant?”

New World Phaseolus beans differ from the Old World beans in that they grow during the hot summer months. Over much of the American tropics where Phaseolus beans evolved, rain comes in the summer months. In the desert Southwest region of Utah and Arizona, where beans are a staple food, Native American farmers irrigated their crops from ditches during the summers. The dramatic growth rates that warmth-loving Phaseolus vulgaris can achieve during optimum conditions could well have appeared as magical to English peasant folk, accustomed as they were to the sedate pace of the cold tolerant fava. If you were an English farm worker in the 16th century, responsible to train the sprawling Phaseolus beans to poles, it might seem as though the new American beans could stretch out to touch heaven overnight. But vulgaris means common in botanical Latin, and Jack’s bean was anything but common. Ironically, for much of its history, Vicia faba was not only more common than Phaseolus vulgaris, but more magical as well.

Broad beans had been a staple food for people in the Mediterranean basin and central Asia for over thirty thousand years. As the fava bean was passed from generation to generation, its reputation grew. Rameses III offered 11,998 jars of shelled fava beans to the Nile god. The hollow, tubular stems of the fava plant were understood by the priesthood of ancient Egypt to be channels through which souls passed to the underworld. It is probably for this reason that the Greek philosopher/mystic Pythagorus, who learned his wisdom in Egypt, promoted his theorem that “it is evil to eat beans.” Favas, which grew through Egypt’s mild winters, were an obvious sign of rebirth, too. The tender fresh bean the fava plant yields in early spring was the first edible gift of the year from the ancestors to the living.

Later, in Christian Europe, a dried fava bean was traditionally folded into the batter of a Twelfth Night Cake at Christmas before the dessert was set into hot ashes to bake. One third portion of the cake would be dedicated to the virgin mother and one third part offered to the Magi. These pieces were offered to the poor, while the remaining third got eaten at home. Whoever ended up with the bean in their mouth was “King” for the day. From Rameses the third to Henry the eighth, and from the underworld to the heavens, broad beans were agents of transformation.

Jack’s poverty, trickery, and violence is faithfully reported in the beanstalk story, but no consistent, specific graphic details are included that might help any of us to pick out a magic bean from among all the common ones. Contemporary artists illustrating the story invariably picture the kidney shape of a Phaseolus bean in Jack’s palm, and when they draw foliage that in any way resembles bean leaves, they show heart shaped Phaseolus leaves hanging from the vine, not spoon shaped Vicia faba leaves. This artistic leap to conclusions is understandable, if unwarranted. Jack and the Beanstalk is considered a children’s story and children are not taught to be picky about the graphic details of systematic botany. Then too, many modern illustrators are computer savvy urbanites, comfortable with the virtual world, but unable to tell a bean tree from a banana vine on our actual planet. And if gardens have largely disappeared from the average person’s experience, it’s also true that fava beans have mostly disappeared from the American diet. Broad beans were once ground into flour and prepared in belly-stuffing starchy gruels, but that role has largely been taken over by the potato in the last two hundred years. But despite the testimony of children’s book illustrators, I think Jack’s bean was a broad bean.

Phaseolus vines can reach to fifteen feet in length, but the stems are lax and the plant must cling on something if the plant is to reach the sky. No edition of Jack and the Beanstalk that I’m aware of makes mention of a magical bean pole to support a magical Phaseolus. Maybe deceptive botany and sloppy illustration is appropriate for Jack and the Beanstalk because, “Fee!Fie! Foe! Fum! I smell an English scam at the heart of this fairy tale. The “immoral” to Jack’s story is that luck, trickery, and murder gain you the girl, but the real fairy tale here is that any honest agricultural endeavor can yield riches overnight.

But there is magic in a broad bean. Favas duplicate themselves so prolifically and reliably that they can remind us of the metaphoric geese that lay golden eggs. On Mariquita Farm, we harvest the green tips of young fava plants for cooks to use like pea shoots, and when the first beans are only the size of tender young green beans, we harvest them too. By the time the broad beans are swelling in their pods, we’ve been harvesting from the fava plants for several cool, wintery months, and the main harvest is still out in front of us. In that sense, favas work magic on our farm’s cash flow. Then too, fava beans are actinorhizal plants, which means that by virtue of a mutually beneficial relationship they have with a microorganism that infects their roots, they’re able to capture inert nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into a usable for of nitrogen, so that as they grow they fertilize themselves and enrich the soil for the crops that follow.

Fava beans are great, and magical in their own way, but even with a field of them to look at it still takes work to live happily ever after by farming. Jack is such a hustler I suspect that the real story is that he sold the cow and then spent the money on wenches and beer after the farmers’ market. At the inn, the barmaid was probably serving salted, toasted broad beans to help beer sales, and before he left, Jack probably stole a handful for the road. When he got home, he likely had nothing to show for the cow but bad breath and a handful of beans, so he made up a fairy tale about a leprechaun to satisfy his credulous mother, and then turned to a life of crime. The End.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

Fava Bean Recipes

rose-colored fava blossom photo

Fava Bean Ladder

3 Responses to “Beans for Bedtime”

  1. 1 Gretchen Jones

    Thank you for this beautiful story. Now I know something about FAVA beans.

  2. 2 Donna

    Hi Andy,

    Did you know that March 3 is the feast of St. Medir, the patron saint of fava beans?

    Here’s a fava recipe to add to your collection. It is from 1604 from Liege (Belgium) by Lancelot de Casteau.
    “Fava Bean Tart
    Take cooked green fava beans and remove the skins, and pound them and add in two raw eggs, a quarter ounce of cinnamon, a bit of chopped mint, three ounces of sugar, four ounces of melted butter and make tarts.”

    Jeremy refers to Casteau’s book of recipes as “Just Add Butter” … Casteau even cooks bacon fat in butter. Casteau was the cook to three successive Prince Bishops of Liege. Perhaps the high turn over in that job had something to do with quite so much butter in His Excellency’s diet :-)
    Will there be another fava bean u-pick this year?

  3. 3 Marcus Coles

    Jack’s beans had to be favas. ‘Fy, fa, fum, I smell the blood of an English-man’ appeared in Thomas Nashe’s play ‘Have with you to Saffron-walden’ in 1596 and about 9 years later Shakespeare wrote ‘Fie, foh and fum, I small the blood of a British man’ in King Lear (Act 5). It looks as though the bean stalk/giant killing story line predates by at least a couple of centuries, the arrival of PH. VULGARIS beans in the Old World. Look too at the full grown fava bean plant, often over 6 feet high-the full pods stick out from the strong stem like rungs of a ladder. To a 2-3ft child, they must have looked like plants almost reaching the sky-so favas without a doubt!

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