Legume’s Lost Legacy, Found

180423_r31919.jpg

Rancho Gordo’s heirloom beans look like gems in a jewelry case. The company sells half a million pounds of them a year.Illustration by Cari Vander Yacht

180423_r31939

“My favorite bean is always the last one I ate,” Steve Sando says.Illustration by Cari Vander Yacht

If you only had read the first sentence in this story, you might move right on to something more promising.

Look at the author and look at the title, both familiar to those visiting this platform over the years, and it is certain not to disappoint. It is about this man to the right, and his culinary/cultural mission:

The Hunt for Mexico’s Heirloom Beans

Rare varieties discovered by Rancho Gordo’s Steve Sando have turned the humble legume into a gourmet food.

By Burkhard Bilger

The best meal of my life, or at least the most memorable, came from a can. I was thirteen at the time and living in France, so that may have had something to do with it. But I credit the beans. My older sisters and I were at a hippie camp in the Alps that summer, not far from the Italian border. My parents had stashed us there while they went home to Oklahoma to check on our house, which they’d rented to some graduate students while my father was on sabbatical. The camp was the cheapest one they could find, and they seemed to have done next to no research before signing us up. My mother just loved the name: Jeunesse du Soleil Levant, Youth of the Rising Sun.

As it turned out, we rarely woke before noon. The camp had promised a vigorous program of crafts, hikes, and team-building games, but the counsellors were usually too hungover, or too caught up in their tent-hopping romances, to bother. (On the last day of camp, I found a stack of unopened boxes behind the mess tent; they were filled with modelling clay and watercolor paints.) We spent most afternoons playing cards and plunking guitars, killing time till after dinner, when we’d hike down to the village to drink beer with grenadine and dance to French disco music.

It was paradise, mostly. The exception was the few mornings when our counsellors, seized by a spasm of conscience, would roust us from our tents and lead us on forced marches through the mountains, declaring that this was what summer camp was all about. It was on one of those trips, on the shore of a frigid lake, that I had the meal of my life. I was famished by then and wobbly with fatigue. I’d spent too many days lounging around, and a counsellor had stuffed two giant cans of cassoulet in my backpack before we left. French trail mix. When we pried them open for dinner, there were only white beans inside, flecked with salt pork. They had one flavor, one texture, one purpose—to fill my stomach—but that was enough. Hunger is a simple thing, an alarm bell in the brain. Sometimes there’s nothing better than shutting it off.

I thought about that meal last spring, when I first met Steve Sando. We were standing at a table heaped with hibiscus flowers, at an outdoor market in the town of Ixmiquilpan, three hours north of Mexico City in the state of Hidalgo. It was a Thursday morning in May, and the stalls were full of women gossiping and picking through produce: corn fungus and cactus paddles, purslane and pickling lime, agave buds and papalo leaf that smelled of mint and gasoline. Sando, who is fifty-eight, ambled among them in a white guayabera shirt, untucked at the waist. He had on loose jeans, tennis shoes, and a bright-red baseball cap that said “Rancho Gordo” above the bill. He could hardly have looked more American, yet he fit in perfectly somehow. He was built like a giant bean.

That may seem too easy, beans being Sando’s business. But people are often shaped by their obsessions, and in Sando’s case the similarities are hard to miss. His body is mostly torso, his skin both ruddy and tanned, like a pinto. He makes a colorful first impression, gets a little starchy if you crowd him, then slowly softens up. Fifteen years ago, when Sando founded Rancho Gordo, he had no food-retailing or farming experience. Now he’s the country’s largest retailer of heirloom beans and a minor celebrity in the culinary world. He’s a side dish who’s become a staple.

“This to me . . . it just makes me so happy,” he said. He was holding a bag of rayado chilies, smoked over an oak fire. He stuck his nose deep inside and inhaled. Weeks later, in my pantry at home, a jar of these chilies would abruptly blossom with black moths, hatched from eggs embedded in their flesh. But Sando was just thinking how great they’d be with a mess of beans. We passed tables of epazote, an herb said to prevent flatulence, and bowls of a greenish-gray soil with a vaguely vegetal smell. “Pond scum from Lake Texcoco,” Sando said. “We use it to soften beans.” To Sando, everything in Mexico seems to connect to beans, and through them to the rest of world cuisine. When he’s at home, in Napa, California, he sometimes gives talks at local elementary schools. He starts by asking the kids where pizza comes from.

“Italy!”

Wrong. Mexico! That’s where tomatoes are from. What about chocolate?”

“Switzerland!”

“Nope. Mexico! That’s where cocoa beans are from. How about vanilla?”

“Mexico?”

“That’s right! And chilies, corn, and squash, too.” Many of the staples of European and Asian cooking came from Mesoamerica via the Spanish, he explains. It’s called the Columbian Exchange, but it wasn’t much of a trade for the Mesoamericans. They got turnips, barley, and spinach.

Sando is a rather sheepish addition to that history. He’s uneasy about import regulations, fretful of cultural appropriation, and well aware of his fumbling grasp of Mexican custom. “I’m not the Indiana Jones of beans,” he told me. “I’m the Don Quixote.” Every year, he takes one or two trips to Mexico to look for rare varieties and farmers who might grow them for him. He was in Ixmiquilpan to search for an especially elusive quarry: Flor de Durazno, the Flower of the Peach. This was a dainty, pinkish-brown bean of uncommon taste and velvety texture, grown in Hidalgo. Sando had seen it once in his life, in a package sent to his office by a farmer not far from this market. He was hoping to buy two thousand pounds for his Bean Club.

I happen to be a member of the Bean Club, though I’m a little reluctant to admit it. Not that it isn’t a pretty exclusive thing. Anyone can buy beans from Rancho Gordo, but the Bean Club—which sends members six rare varieties and a few other oddments, like blue hominy, every three months—closed its rolls last year. Sando couldn’t keep up with demand. Still, admitting that you’re obsessed with beans is a little like saying you collect decorative plates. It marks your taste as untrustworthy. I’ve seen the reaction often enough in my family: the eye roll and stifled cough, the muttered aside as I show yet another guest the wonders of my well-lit and cleverly organized bean closet. As my daughter Evangeline put it one night, a bit melodramatically, when I served beans for the third time in a week, “Lord, why couldn’t it have been bacon or chocolate?”

Beans are the middle child of American cooking, the food we forget we love. Back in Oklahoma, after my father’s sabbatical, they always seemed to be covered in cheese, coated in ketchup and molasses, or tossed into a three-bean salad like so many protein pellets. The closest I came to the cassoulet was the Sea Island Red Peas that I had in Charleston one spring, thirty years later. They were an heirloom variety, reintroduced by the food historian Glenn Roberts at Anson Mills—potent little field peas, possessed of an unreasonably rich brown broth. But Anson Mills had only the one variety to offer, along with some Purple Cape beans from time to time. Then I found Rancho Gordo.

The beans on Sando’s site look like gems in a jewelry case: crimson, violet, black, and gold; stippled, striped, and swirled. They bear evocative names—Eye of the Goat, Yellow Indian Woman—and range in size from tiny Pinquitos to Royal Coronas the size of a baby’s ear. There is, admittedly, some risk of false advertising. Once the beans have cooked, the colors run and fade, leaving a soupy pot of brownish seeds. The inky depth of a black bean, or the grassiness of a flageolet, is easy to taste. But most varieties aren’t nearly as distinct as their bright costumes portend. Cooking beans is like going to see clowns and sword swallowers at a circus, only to find them all sitting inside the tent, playing canasta. “It’s God’s little joke,” Sando told me…

Read the whole article here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s