Beans, widely cultivated legumes that have nourished the people of Latin America for millennia. Throughout the region, few meals lack beans. In Mexico, people typically eat mashed beans with corn tortillas, whereas in Brazil, since colonial times, a ladle of soupy beans poured over rice is the core component of many daily diets. In this way, the majority of Latin Americans survive on the near complete protein provided by a mixture of beans and rice or maize.
While hundreds of species exist, many of them indigenous to the American tropics, the multiple varieties of the common bean (phaseolus vulgaris), including dried black, pinto, and red beans, are the most widespread in Latin America. Another species, commonly known as lima or butter beans (phaseolus lunatus), is also widely grown in the region. Both were among the earliest domesticated plants of the Western Hemisphere, with evidence of their cultivation dating from 7000–5000 bce.
Archaeologists differ over the locations in which bean agriculture first developed in America, but it is now believed that it occurred independently in Mexico's Tamaulipas desert and Peru's highland Callejon de Hayulas valley. The culture gradually spread throughout North and South America well before 1492. After Columbus, Europeans eventually recognized the utility of dried beans on long ocean voyages, and their journeys helped introduce American beans throughout the world.
The production of beans has generally been taken for granted in Latin America. Their low cost and high nutritional value assured that they were always being cultivated by someone. Indians grew them with maize, weaving the vines between stalks of corn. On sugarcane plantations, captive Africans commonly received small plots of land in order to grow beans to feed themselves. Peasants invariably mixed beans with other subsistence crops. Coffee growers frequently left extra space between the rows of trees in order to intercrop beans and other vegetables.
Competing export crops and livestock land uses have caused problems for bean farming in Latin America. The expansion of soybean agriculture in the last decades of the twentieth century reduced the land devoted to growing common beans, and in Brazil the once ubiquitous black bean nearly disappeared from the market. At the same time, the population explosion caused increased demand, and bean prices skyrocketed. To keep underpaid workers fed, some governments subsidized bean farmers, while many others artificially manipulated prices. All the same, as late as 1980, small family farmers produced more than three-quarters of the beans grown in Latin America, revealing the continued decentralization of bean cultivation.
Bean supply shortages and price hikes worsened as Latin American governments tried to liberalize their economies. Strapped by heavy foreign debt burdens, officials simultaneously encouraged foreign exchange-earning export crops while cutting back on subsidies for staple crops like beans. In the inflation-plagued 1980s and 1990s, fluctuations in the availability of beans and other basic foodstuffs contributed to social and political unrest in Peru, Argentina, and Venezuela. In Brazil, the looting of supermarkets in cities such as Rio de Janeiro became commonplace in 1992.
In the twenty-first century, soybean production has continued to expand, due to the large demand from China. However, this expansion has sparked debate because Brazil in 2005 lifted its ban on genetically modified (GM) crops. GM soybeans are productive but both environmental and consumer groups have raised concerns about their unknown effects. The increase in soybean production has also been a major driver of Amazon deforestation.
Alvin Silverstein and Virginia Silverstein, Beans: All About Them (1975).
Luis López Cordovez, "Trends and Recent Changes in the Latin American Food and Agriculture Situation," in CEPAL Review (April 1982): 7-41.
Charles B. Heiser, Jr., Seed to Civilization: The Story of Food, new ed. (1990).
Carillo, Ana María. La cocina del tomate, frijol y calabaza. Mexico City: Clío, 1998.
Long, Janet, and Luis Alberto Vargas. Food Culture in Mexico. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.
bean, name applied to the seeds of leguminous trees and shrubs and to various leguminous plants of the family Leguminosae (pulse family) with edible seeds or seed pods (legumes). The genera and species encompassed by the term bean are many and variable. The broad beans (Vicia faba, of the vetch genus), the soybean types (Glycine max), and a few lesser species were the only beans known to the Old World before the discovery of America, by which time the indigenous peoples had already developed most of the bean types still used today, e.g., the lima beans, kidney beans, string beans, shell beans, and pea beans. All these are species and varieties of Phaseolus, the
bean genus; the hereditary history of most is unknown, and hence the taxonomic distinctions are often still uncertain. The plants are easily cultivated but susceptible to several diseases, e.g., rusts, blights, wilts, and bean anthracnose (a fungus).
Types of Beans
In general, beans are warm-season annuals (although the roots of tropical species tend to be perennial) that grow erect (bush types) or as vines (pole or running types). Field beans are mostly the bush type and are used as stock feed. This has also become the principal use of the ancient large-seeded broad bean (called also the horse or Windsor bean), still widely grown in Europe but seldom as food for humans.
The common garden beans comprise several bush types and most of the pole types; the most often cultivated and most varied species, P. vulgata, is familiar as both types. P. vulgata is the French haricot and the Spanish frijole. String beans, snap beans, green and yellow wax beans, and some kidney beans are eaten as whole pods; several kidney beans, pinto beans, pea beans, and many other types are sold as mature dry seeds. The lima or butter beans (P. lunatus, including the former P. limensis), usually pole but sometimes bush types, have a long history; they have been found in prehistoric Peruvian graves. The sieva is a type of lima. The scarlet runner (P. multiflorus), grown in Europe for food, is mainly an ornamental vine in North America. The tepary (P. acutifolius latifolius), a small variety long grown by Indians in the SW United States, has been found better suited to hot, arid climates and is more prolific than the frijole.
Other beans are the hyacinth bean or lablab (Dolichos lablab), grown in E Asia and the tropics for forage and food and cultivated in North America as an ornamental vine; the asparagus bean or yard-long bean (Vigna sesquipedalis), grown in E Asia for food but often cultivated in the West as a curiosity; and the velvet bean (Stizolobium), cultivated in the S United States as a forage and cover crop. The carob, the cowpea or black-eyed pea, and the chickpea or garbanzo are among the many other legumes sometimes considered beans. The sacred bean of India is the seed of the Indian lotus (of the water lily family).
Uses of Beans
Because seeds contain much protein, beans are useful as a meat substitute and in different parts of the world are a characteristic item—often a staple—of the national fare. Baked beans, cooked for hours with pork or molasses or both, are a traditional New England dish. The Greeks and Romans used the broad bean for balloting—black seeds to signify opposition and white seeds agreement. This custom lingered in England in the election of the king and queen for Twelfth Night and other celebrations and was taken to the New World colony at Massachusetts Bay, where Indian beans were used.
Beans are classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Rosales, family Leguminosae.
bean / bēn/ • n. 1. an edible seed, typically kidney-shaped, growing in long pods on certain leguminous plants. ∎ the hard seed of coffee, cocoa, and certain other plants. 2. a leguminous plant that bears such seeds in pods. • Phaseolus and other genera, family Leguminosae: numerous species, including the scarlet runner (P. coccineus), kidney bean (P. vulgaris), and broad bean (Vicia faba). 3. (also beans) inf. a very small amount or nothing at all of something (used emphatically): I didn't know beans about being a step-parent. 4. inf. a person's head, typically when regarded as a source of common sense. • v. [tr.] inf. hit (someone) on the head: Boone was nearly beaned by that wild pitch. PHRASES: full of beans inf. lively; in high spirits. a hill (or row) of beans anything of any importance or value: three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
Ancient Jewish sources refer to several species of beans under the Hebrew name of pol qualified by various epithets. Pol itself is the broad bean (Vicia faba) which was included in the food brought to David's forces by his loyal supporters from Ammon and Gilead (ii Sam. 17:28). Its flour was added to the bread that Ezekiel was commanded to eat to symbolize the approaching destruction of Jerusalem (Ezek. 4:9). In mishnaic and talmudic times the broad bean was widely grown, being a cheap food popular especially among the poor (Tosef., bm 3:9; Sof. 21:4) and eaten with or without the husk. Another important plant was the pol ha-miẓri which, identified with the cowpea (Vigna sinensis), is a creeper which grows in summer. In mishnaic times it was highly regarded as a food for human consumption (Ned. 7:1; Shev. 2:8–9) but is now grown as fodder. To the botanical genus Vigna belongs another plant called pol he-ḥaruv which is the legume known as the yard-long bean (Vigna sesquipedalis), its Hebrew name being derived, according to the Jerusalem Talmud (Kil. 1:2, 27a), from the shape of its pods, which resembles that of the carob (ḥaruv). Another variety of the cowpea is called she'u'it (Kil. 1:1); this is the legume Vigna nilotica, which grows wild in Israel climbing river banks, or is sown as fodder. The Mishnah (ibid.) states that it is not a *mixed species (kilayim) with pol ha-lavan, the hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab), the seed of which is used as food.
Loew, Flora 12 (1924), 492f.; J. Feliks, Olam ha-Ẓome'aḥ ha-Mikra'i (1957), 156–8, 318; idem, Kilei Zera'im (1967), 41–43.
Beans were traditionally used in casting ballots, and the Latin tag Abstineto a fabis ‘Abstain from beans’ is understood as an injunction to abstain from meddling in affairs of state by casting one's vote in an election. The followers of Pythagoras abstained from eating beans, although the reason for this is not known.
In traditional Twelfth Night celebrations, a bean was baked into a cake, and the man in whose portion it was found became King of the Bean, and leader of the celebrations for the night.
Bean was also used to mean a coin or small sum of money, as in the informal not a bean for ‘no money’.
bean counter a person, typically an accountant or bureaucrat, perceived as placing excessive emphasis on controlling expenditure and budgets (bean here means a coin).
beanfeast a celebratory party with plenty of food and drink; originally, an annual dinner given by an employer to his employees, at which beans and bacon were regarded as an indispensable dish. The term is recorded from the early 19th century.
See also beans.
Bean ★★★ 1997 (PG-13)
Big screen adaptation of rubberfaced Atkinson's Mr. Bean character finds disaster-magnet hero working as a guard in London's National Gallery. When a famous painting is purchased by a museum in L.A., the Gal lery's curators jump at the chance to send Bean along with the painting as an “expert,” although he is nearly mute and definitely not qualified. David (MacNicol), the American curator, invites him to stay at his house, much to the dismay of his wife and children. Bean, of course, wrecks the painting, ruins David's marriage and career, and generally makes an ass out of himself. He then resourcefully (and sometimes accidentally) puts things right. Atkinson proves himself a master of the almost lost art of slapstick comedy. 92m/C VHS, DVD . GB Rowan Atkinson, Peter MacNichol, Pamela Reed, Harris Yulin, Burt Reynolds, Larry Drake, Johnny Galecki, Richard Gant, Tom McGowan, Dakin Matthews, Peter Capaldi, Sandra Oh, Tricia Vessey, Peter Egan; D: Mel Smith; W: Richard Curtis, Robin Driscoll; C: Francis Kenny; M: Howard Goodall.
The consumption of beans was prohibited by Pythagoras and Plato to those who desired veracious dreams, as they tended to inflate; and for the purpose of truthful dreaming, the animal nature must be made to lie quiet. Cicero, however, laughed at this prohibition, asking if it is the stomach and not the mind with which one dreams.
Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1985.