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Hunting Heirloom Beans

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On the Road

(This is adapted from a guest blogger piece I did for Chronicle Books.)

One of my favorite parts of Mexico is the Huasteca region. It goes from east to west though the states of San Luis Potosi, Hidalgo and Veracruz. It’s said that when the conquest of Mexico was at its height, many indigenous people left the cities and went up into the mountains of the rugged Huasteca and they’ve never quite been able to let their guard down. The regions all share some similar food and the music is especially great.

A few years ago I was on a typical driving trip with my partners, Yunuen and Gabriel. I wish I could express how much I love these trips. We sing and laugh and eat and I see parts of Mexico that just shock and delight me. How many ways can you deep fry corn and come up with another delicious dish? Don’t even try to keep track while you’re in Mexico. We stop often to eat, inspect bean fields or best of all to climb ruins and imagine pre-Conquest Mexico. The Huasteca normally means great mountains and not so great roads. It took us hours to get to a farmer we had heard about who was growing his family’s heirloom beans, but we didn’t mind so much. You can always stop for fresh coconuts and their juice and there’s always a meal or a snack around the corner.

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We started to get excited as we got closer to the farmer. There was lots of agriculture and we even saw neat rows of beans. I was happy to see the farmers were using good irrigation water and the general state of things told us this was a farmer who cared and wanted to do good work.

Dogs barked and chickens lost their cool as we pulled up to the farmhouse. It was big news having uninvited visitors. The farmer was really thin but healthy looking and I’d bet he had a steady diet of beans, tortillas and boiled cactus paddles, all from his land. He seemed nice enough but he kept staring at me and smiling. I wasn’t sure what his motivation but it was welcome and preferable to a smirk. After pleasantries, Gabriel asked him what beans he was growing. I was prepared to hear about the varieties that had been in his family for generations and would be perfect for importing back to the states through my company, Rancho Gordo.

Still staring at me and beaming, he almost shouted, “Michigan Black!”

Michigan black is a boring hybrid that produces well but is of little interest to an heirloom bean fan. We burst out laughing at the thought that we had come all this way to get generic beans from Michigan. We apologized for laughing and did our best to leave a good impression but after the humor wore off, we had a sense of horror. Here was a farmer way out in nowhere who gave up his family heirloom bean business to grow generic black beans for an imaginary international market. How was this farmer to compete with the Chinese or the Peruvians on price? He’d given up quality and we lost some heirloom beans. Nobody wins.

It was this trip that made my bean hunting go from a fun hobby to almost an act of desperation. How many varieties are we losing? How fast can I find them? I return to Mexico about six times a year and always have an eye for my beloved heirloom beans that might need my help. I hear there are people here in California trying to produce a good balsamic vinegar. I think this is admirable but it’s a tradition that is very stable in Europe and it’s going to take generations to be competitive. Meanwhile, here’s one of our own indigenous crops and various varieties are on the verge of extinction, and we don’t even know what they taste like. This is why I love to focus on New World food, heirloom beans in particular.



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