If you love beans as much as we do, you’re probably familiar with the name of Steve Sando and his company Rancho Gordo. Steve has become a 21st-century champion for heirloom bean varieties from the Americas, proving with every harvest that dried beans can be a truly delectable food. His cookbooks, blog and website are full of great ways to cook with beans, and he’s also written an heirloom bean grower’s guide.
Steve’s not the first American to delve deeply into the world of beans. In the 20th century, a man named John Earl Withee, Jr. collected nearly 1,200 varieties of beans, according to the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange. Born in 1910, Withee was raised in rural Maine where the staple Saturday night supper was always baked beans:
Each Friday, John’s chore was to clean out the bean hole, a dedicated pit in the yard used as an earth oven, and to start a fire. When the coals got hot, a Dutch oven full of beans was placed over the coals and the hole was filled with dirt. The beans would bake for an entire day and would be ready for the Saturday evening meal. — From Maine to Main Course: The Life and Legacy of the Bean Man, Seed Savers Exchange
Somehow, Withee never grew tired of beans. Once he had established a career in medical photography, he dug a bean hole in his suburban Massachusetts garden and went looking for the old-time Jacob’s Cattle beans he’d eaten in childhood.
This search led to the discovery of many more kinds of heirloom beans than Withee had known existed, with names like Bennett’s Giant Soldier, Big Brown, Stub’s Mammoth Scipios and Bert Deane’s Baking Bean. As the names suggest, some of these cultivars were being grown by a single family when Withee found them.
Like Steve Sando a half-century later, Withee eagerly shared his discoveries with a growing circle of bean enthusiasts and eventually earned national recognition. You can see photos and read detailed histories of Withee’s beans on the Painted Jewels page of the Seed Savers Exchange website.
And if you’d like to cook with truly fresh dried beans grown here on Martha’s Vineyard, drop by the farmstand this fall: We’ve just harvested our black turtle beans and will soon have yellow eye beans—a classic for New England baked beans—as well.