I call them “beans” and mean Limas, Favas, Blacks, Pintos, Chickpeas, Lentils and more. They’re also known as “pulses” perhaps because of their concentrated power. Whatever name we use, they’re protein-rich and they have long been cultivated and enjoyed from Asia and Africa to Europe and the Americas.
In a coordinated, worldwide campaign to heighten public awareness about the ubiquitous bean, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2016 “The International Year of Pulses.”
According to the UN, pulses are an essential element in the campaign for sustainable agriculture, food security and nutrition.
Tierra Vegetables, located on the northern edge of Santa Rosa, is probably the best place to buy beans in Sonoma County and perhaps all of northern California.
Wayne James, the heart and the soul of Tierra, along with his sister, Lee, grows more different kinds of beans than anyone else in the region. Some seasons, he grows more than two-dozen different varieties. At other times, he doesn’t bother to keep count.
One of the best-known farmers in Sonoma, James served in the Peace Corp in Lesotho, near the southern tip of Africa, where he helped introduce sustainable agriculture.
“The people who lived there had depleted the environment,” he told me. “They had to have alternatives.”
Then, too, before he arrived at Tierra, he farmed organically in Potter Valley, California in the 1970s.
“The organic farming movement of that era fizzled,” he said. “There wasn’t enough money to make it a go. Some farmers sold directly to restaurants, but restaurants went out of business before they paid the farmers what they owed and the farmers went out of business, too.”
On a recent visit to Tierra, I saw the diversity of the beans that were displayed on a large table in the barn: Yellow Eye, Baddas, White Tepary, Louisiana Red and more, along with information about each one.
The Slow Food Ark of Taste has endorsed Baddas, which were originally grown in Sicily and were often used for that quintessential Italian soup, pasta e fagiola that originated as peasant food and that made its way up the food chain.
James discovered Baddas when he attended Terra Madre in Italy.
“Every culture has a connection to beans,” he told me. “Here, we’re tied closely to Mexican and Hispanic beans, but we also have beans that are French and English, like Marrowfat. The White Tepary were originally cultivated by the Papago Indians, and grow well in the desert. During the drought of the last few years, we’ve grown a lot of beans here at Tierra.”
James scooped up a handful of Tepary. Then he continued, “Beans improve the land; they’re a good rotation crop. Unlike fresh beans, dry beans have a long growing season: from May to October. They’re little capsules of protein because the plant puts all its energy into their creation.”
Local chefs buy beans in bulk at Tierra. According to Barbara Rigby, who manages the farm stand, Cranberry beans are the most popular with the kings and queens of restaurant kitchens.
“Chefs go nuts over them,” Rigby said. She enjoys Black Turtles and Swedish Browns that she cooks with molasses, bacon and onions. But she adds, “I’m working through every single bean.”
Julia Gnall, the chef and manager of the Tierra Vegetables Kitchen, cooks with produce from the farm. She also influences the kinds of seeds that James and the crew plant in the ground.
Case in point: White Settler Beans, which originated in Covelo, California. Julia cooked them in Tierra’s kitchen and liked them. “They held their shape, they were meaty and creamy and they tasted good,” she said. So, James planted a row of them.
Gnall grew up in Marin where her mother, a superlative cook, made “regular American cuisine,” as well as traditional Jewish dishes such as Cholent, a stew with beans, potatoes, meat and barley that has been eaten everywhere that Jews have lived, worked, prayed and raised families: Africa, Europe and the Americas.
Julia thickens soups with bean flour; she also mixes beans with rice to make stuffed cabbage, a dish that has recently been added to the CSA boxes at Tierra.
Jacob’s Cattle beans, along with garlic and lemon juice, go into the chipotle hummus that she makes.
Julia’s recipe for basic beans is simple: cook them until tender (say, 30 minutes) in water with onions, herbs, olive oil and salt.
For lunch, she enjoys tacos with beans, cheese and garden fresh greens.
“For a long time my favorite food was Italian,” she told me. “More recently, and especially after visiting Mexico, my taste has shifted to Oaxacan cuisine that’s based on beans, corn and Chile peppers.”
Two brothers, Jesus and Javier Munoz, who are both in the 20s, were born and raised in Michoacán in Mexico. Now, they work together in the fields at Tierra, where they plant, cultivate and harvest beans.
In Michoacán, the beans are mainly Flor de Mayo and Peruano,” Jesus said. “Almost everything here in the North is different from what it is in Mexico, though on both sides of the border, people share the love of beans.”
Jonah Raskin, a longtime member of Slow Food Russian River, is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.
Karen Preuss, also a longtime member of Slow Food Russian River, takes pictures all across northern California. Visit her website.