Commentary

Beans, beans, good for the heart!

April 24, 2014 

I know “Blazing Saddles” beat me to it but I would like to offer an ode to beans.

What precipitated this was a visit from a friend who had never eaten a plate of pinto beans. Let me expand on that: He had never sat down to a heaping plate of pinto beans cooked for hours with a smoked ham hock so that they practically make their own gravy, the whole mess of which then is enhanced by chow-chow and crumbled cornbread.

“What is this?” he asked me, like an alien encountering Earth food for the first time.

“Pinto beans and a ham hock,” I said.

“What’s a ham hock?”

The next day I took him to the grocery store and showed him where to find the dried beans. He was delighted that they were a little over a dollar a pound (he’s thrifty).

“I bet I could make a meal out of these for three days,” he speculated. Yep, and Katie bar the door!

I evidently could add another name to the list of the uninitiated who have been converted to the wonderful world of beans.

Pinto beans were a regular item on the menu at my house growing up, even though we lived in Ohio, where the widespread attitude toward beans was that they were eaten only by people down on their luck or by cowboys on a cattle drive. Ohioans might have been familiar with canned pork and beans, which they ate on picnics with hot dogs, but that was about it.

Beyond pintos, I also was wild about Boston baked beans as a kid. At summer camp in Maine, dinner every Saturday night was Boston baked beans, steamed New England brown bread with raisins in it and hot dogs (no buns). Although they started out as white navy beans, after they had baked for hours in molasses and onions, the beans came out dark brown and sweet. Wicked good!

My wife likes to tell about how her brother used to hide his lima beans in the crevices under the kitchen table while his siblings were ordered to choke theirs down. For many years, I could sympathize with that story. I subscribed to the adage: The worst pizza is better than the best lima beans.

Such lunacy! I’m not sure when it happened, although it probably was the result of gradual enlightenment, but at some point I came to love lima beans.

In fact, I came to love all the things I used to hate about them – their neutral earthy flavor, their soft, almost mushy texture, their imposing appearance on the plate. The more petite baby limas are OK, but I’m talking about the massive white butter beans cooked with what’s left of the ham bone after it’s been picked over.

Dried butter beans are OK, but fresh are better.

Black beans might be the most beautiful beans in the world, especially when situated near a pile of white rice. The beans almost seem to shine. Jazzed up with onions, lots of garlic, pork and a little sherry, they also end up being more complex and interesting than most other beans.

While black beans usually are a side dish, you can make a meal out of them by hollowing out a piece of French bread and pouring black beans into the cavity. It’s a bean sandwich.

I guess I could go on about cassoulet, red beans and rice, bean soup with bacon, pasta e fagioli, field peas, black-eyed peas, refried beans and chili with beans (I don’t care what the purists say!), to name a few other bean dishes. But you get the idea. Beans in their infinite varieties and forms are a blessing.

The people from Ohio are right that beans, for centuries, have been fare for the poor. But like many other dishes that started with the lowliest ingredients, a plate of beans can be elevated to something ethereal.

Enjoy the miracle.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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