Elizabeth Berry nurtures her specialty beans as if they
were members of the family. She's aided in her obsession by chef-friends
who love to cook with them
Now hold out your hands and close your eyes," says
Elizabeth Berry, as excited as a kid on Christmas. She shows me a tiny,
hand-sewn cotton pouch with two bumps: two beans, each as fat as a thumb
and smooth as satin.
"I swear they're the beans of Jack and the Beanstalk,"
exclaims Berry about her latest acquisition. "This guy sent them to me
from Germany. He says the pods grow 12 inches long. But he only sent
two! I'm going to grow them very carefully."
Many farmers grow ordinary beans like pintos or kidneys.
A handful grow more unusual beans, as Berry does. But no one else makes
plain old beans seem darn near magical.
She's been called the Bean Queen, and at her farm in
Abiquiu, New Mexico, Berry's obsession threatens to take over her house.
Beans fill the living room, kitchen, and bedroom in paper sacks,
dishpans, bowls, envelopes, and zip-lock plastic bags. There are
purple-and-black beans, chartreuse beans, yellow, white, and even indigo
"When I grew my first beans nine years ago, I thought,
'A bean's a bean,'" says Berry. "But I gave them to a chef to try. He
said they were the best he'd ever had, so I started growing more."
Soon Berry was searching for the best-tasting, most
beautiful heirloom beans, varieties that might become extinct if no one
creates a market for them. Two years ago she grew 650 varieties culled
from the collection at Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa. Now people send her
beans from all over the world.
She introduces 20 to 25 varieties at an annual chefs'
tasting, where Santa Fe chefs such as Mark Miller of Coyote Cafe and
Katharine Kagel of Cafe Pasqual's vote for their favorites. The next
year, Berry grows the four most popular beans for seed, and as soon as
she has 100 pounds (enough for 1 acre), she passes them on to another
farmer to grow in bulk.
"I would grow beans just for their beauty. This way, I
find a home for them," Berry explains. "It's fun to swap beans and all
that, but I have a bigger vision. I want every supermarket in the
country to have them. Each year I expand. It's just a matter of time,
and good luck with weather."
This spring Berry will move operations from Abiquiu to
her ranch in the Rio Chama wilderness (in northern New Mexico) to devote
herself full-time to bean research and development.
Beneath dun-colored mesas where beans have been part of
the culture for millenia, Berry plans for her Jack and the Beanstalk
beans. "I'm going to trellis them 20 feet high on my purple Inca corn.
That will be spectacular!"
WHERE TO FIND HEIRLOOMS
Natural-food and grocery stores sell an increasing
selection of specialty beans. You can also try these mail-order sources.
Bean names vary among producers. Prices do not include shipping.
Coyote Cafe General Store, 132 W. Water St., Santa Fe,
87501; (800) 8664695. About 14 varieties, including all at left; $3.95
per 1/2 pound.
Gallina Canyon Ranch, Box 2334, Twin Falls, ID 83303.
About 25 varieties, including all at left. For a list and order form,
send self-addressed, stamped envelope and check for $1 made out to
Elizabeth Berry. $4 per pound.
Phipps Country Store & Farm, Box 349, Pescadero, CA
94060; (415) 8790787. About 100 varieties, including all at left. 69
cents to $3.99 per pound.
Zursun, 754 Canyon Park Ave., Twin Falls, ID 83301;
(800) 424-8881. About 24 varieties, including Appaloosa, Cannellini,
Flageolet, and Scarlet Runner. $3 per pound.