Monday, June 25, 2007


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (6/20/07)

Anyone fortunate enough to take Latin as an adolescent remembers the beginning of Julius Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic and Civil Wars. With a simple, declarative sentence, he wrote, “Gallia est omnis in partes tres.” (All Gaul is divided into three parts.) The parts were the Belgae, the Acquitani, and the Celts, all of whom were markedly different from one another. So it is with beans (Phaselous vulgaris), the snap, the shelled, and the dry. Rather than take on all the beans, as Caesar did Gaul, our concern is the snap, formerly called stringed, sometimes green. Needless to say, dry Pinto beans are markedly different from a freshly picked, tender Blue Lake.

As with most clearly stated distinctions, Caesar did not include the overlaps. So it is with beans. Some shelled beans become dry. Snaps can be shelled and dried. However, the heart of the matter is the preferred state in which they are eaten. Dry Pintos are eaten only after being soaked, boiled, and simmered. Snaps are eaten when green or immature.

Snaps come in two sizes, pole and bush, although some bush are straggly and need support. Also, they come in three colors, green, yellow, and purple, although some are mottled. Pole beans require more work, as in poles, trellises, ladders, lattices, fences, strings, corn stalks, or anything that works. As with tomatoes, pole beans don’t do well by themselves, always needing something on which they can hang, but they produce more than bush beans and are tastier to boot. The only advantage to bush beans is that they are easier to grow, a considerable advantage.

Snap bean fanciers begin with the Kentucky Wonder pole bean, an heirloom from the 1800’s. First produced in 1864 as the “Old Homestead,” it was renamed “Kentucky Wonder” in 1877 and has been the most popular snap bean down to today along with the Blue Lake. A genuine American heirloom, the Kentucky Wonder is prolific, disease resistant, and tasty. It’s the old standby of snap beans and American as apple pie.

As with artichokes, snap beans are best eaten when immaturely tender and tasty. A mature snap is fibrous, dry, stringy, and wanting in savor. After much chewing all that is left is a flavorless mass of fiber difficult to swallow.

However, there’s a lot to life beyond the familiar. Hanging out
with Kentucky Wonders is safe and rewarding, but a trip to Europe is salutary for the soul as well as savory for the palate.

The French, as always, have a fancy phrase for the snap bean and everything else. Haricot vert, pronounced ah ree koh Vehr, literally means green bean. Haricots vert are served in fancy restaurants. They are slimmer, longer, tenderer, more elegant, and thought more flavorful than American snap beans. Amongst the literati, cognoscenti, and gastronomes they are fashionable if there can be such a thing as a fashionable bean.

Two interesting haricots vet are the purple pole A Cosse Violette and the yellow wax bush Beurre de Roquencourt. Both reach maturity in 55 days. With these two snaps Wolfgang Puck of Malibu has nothing on the backyard gardener of Flagstaff.

Of course, a trip to France is best finished with a trip to Italy, the home of the Anellino snap bean, a bean in the shape of a shrimp, grub, or sleeping dog with its snout touching its tail. Children who view eating as entertainment, that is, they play with their food, will love the Stortino de Trento, a mottled green anellino bean of varied colors which curls upon itself. Another Italian is the Marvel of Venice, a long, yellow, flat pole bean of rich taste.

A select few remaining adolescent Latinists may recall the Venerable Bede’s simple, declarative sentence with which he began his 8th century Ecclesiastical History of the English People, “Et Britannia insula est” (And Britain is an island.) For High Country gardeners their backyard gardens serve as an island in which they can to grow fresh, e. coli free, and flavorful snap beans which are served at the fanciest restaurants in all corners of the world. Without leaving their backyards they can eat the best that money can buy.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

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