Online shopping turns up beautiful beans
with incredible flavors
Sacramento Bee, February 4, 2004
By Bob Masullo
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Until a few years ago, Kenneth "Chip" Morris didn't know
beans about beans. Now he's full of beans.
When the Clarksburg, Calif., farmer lost a major
contract for tomatoes, he started looking around for a new crop to grow.
He considered several before settling on beans.
Now Morris grows 90 varieties (classified as heirloom or
organic) and sells them through select stores, at farmers' markets and
online at www.beanbag.net.
Not just any beans, mind you. He grows -- and actively
promotes -- heirloom beans, which he discovered at the Monterey Market
in Berkeley. It was love at first bite.
"They're so beautiful, and they have a great history,"
Few people know they exist, so Morris and a handful of
other heirloom bean growers around the country are working to change
"The more common beans, such as the pinto, the kind you
find in every supermarket, are hybrids," he explains. "They've been bred
to be stronger and to resist disease, which is fine, but they lost taste
and tenderness in the process.
"Heirloom beans, on the other hand, have to be handled
with great care, but their flavors are incredible," Morris says.
"They're far more tender. More nutritious, too. They come in beautiful
colors and vary quite a bit from one to another."
He describes a few: "The marrow bean is wonderfully
smoky, like bacon. Christmas limas taste just like chestnuts. The
eye-of-the-goat bean, a dream bean for vegetarians, seems to have all
sorts of spices in it. You don't have to add any; it just naturally has
Like heirloom varieties of other plants, heirloom beans
hark back to the 19th century. They gradually surrendered shelf space to
a handful of hybrids during the 20th century. The hybrids were developed
for increased production and marketing durability, not for taste.
What makes a bean an heirloom? Mike Holleman, corporate
chef for Indian Harvest Specialtifoods Inc., a major grower and
distributor, defines them this way: "They must come from seeds passed
down from generation to generation without any genetic modification."
Steve Sando, a Napa Valley farmer who does food
commentaries for radio station KVON in Napa, says, "The trouble with the
more common beans is that they're old, lack variety and taste ... while
the taste of heirloom beans knocks your socks off."
Sando bows to no one in his appreciation of them. He
eats some every day "and some days I'll eat them at every meal, even for
breakfast -- I like them mashed on toast."
His favorite variety? "Whichever one I ate last," he
Among those he consumes most frequently are scarlet
runners, which have a "beefy taste, especially if you mix them with
mushrooms," yellow Indian woman ("marvelously creamy") and runner
cannellini ("as light as the wings of a butterfly"). Runner cannellini,
he notes, should not be confused with Eastern cannellini beans, one of
the common supermarket beans, "which are not nearly as good."
Heirloom beans, even more than common supermarket beans,
are also healthful. They're high in protein, fiber, vitamins and
minerals and low in fat and cholesterol. "But to me that's just a fringe
benefit," Sando says.
If you're feeling adventuresome, Morris, the Clarksburg
bean farmer, suggests experimenting with different heirlooms to see
which you prefer. "Then, the next time, buy more of the ones you like
and try a few additional ones," he adds.
Where to get heirloom beans:
Many farmers' markets and some supermarkets carry
heirloom beans. They're also available through the Internet or by mail
The Bean Bag,
www.beanbag.net or (800) 845-2326
(website/phone currently not working)
Phipps Country Store & Farm,
or (800) 359-7873
Purcell Mountain, Farms
www.purcellmountainfarms.com or (866) 440-2326
Editor's note: For those who want to grow their own
heirloom beans, seeds for several types are sold in the gift shop at
Conner Prairie (a recreated 1840s village), north of Indianapolis, at
Fishers, Ind. Learn about this wonderful living museum at