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Beans As Part of the Columbian Exchange

Part of the fun of being featured in The New Yorker was hearing from people all over the world and their stories about beans and/or Mexico. One of the most surprising contacts was the wife of Alfred W. Crosby, Jr, a professor and historian from California who wrote the seminal book, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. (Greenwood Press, 1972) It's a fascinating book and of course I went straight to the index to look up "beans" when I got my copy.
The bean was-third of the alimentary trinity that supported Meso-American civilization when the Spaniard arrived--the other two members being maize and squash--and plays a role of similar, if not equal, importance in the diets of millions throughout the world today. The bean family contains over one thousand species--some New, some Old World in origin--and since most writers and statisticians have been satisfied that “beans is beans,” it is difficult to make precise statements of the importance of American beans. The most important single kind of bean is the eastern hemisphere’s soybean, but the lima, sieva, Rangoon, Madagascar, butter, Burma, pole curry, kidney, French, navy, haricot, snap. String, common, and frijole bean are all American. Often called the “poor man’s meat,” American beans are especially rich in protein, as well as in oils and carbohydrates. When the European arrived in America, the American beans already existed in varieties suitable to almost every climate, and they were so obviously superior to many Old World pulses that they quickly spread in Europe, Africa and Asia. Because they have often been a private garden crop rather than a field crop, they have escaped the official censuses; when they are listed in censuses, they are often grouped under the general heading “Pulses” with number of other kinds of beans. Their importance defies exact statistical description, but the importance is still there. Any world traveler will tell you that the visitor-from-far-away may be treated to gourmet delights for his first few meals in a strange new country, but eventually he will find himself confronted--in Norway, Siberia, Dahomey, and Australia--with a plate of beans --American beans.
I also love 1491 by Charless Mann and America's First Cuisines by Sophie Coe.

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