green beans

Hello, I’m Andrea Castillo and this is Seasonal, a newsletter that connects you to the Bay Area food system, one fruit and vegetable at a time. Seasonal comes out twice per month, and each post highlights the most interesting aspects of one seasonal fruit or vegetable grown and harvested around the Bay Area. Find me on Instagram at @seasonalbayarea or e-mail me at seasonal@substack.com to share your feedback and suggestions, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to unsubscribe, click the gray unsubscribe link at the bottom of this post.

This week we nerd out on green beans (available June - November).

Most of you reading this post have had beans at least once, perhaps in a burrito, tossed on a salad, with rice, or in a hearty winter stew. I never connected the two, but green beans are immature beans. To get green beans, we harvest them early while the pods that cocoon the beans are tender and the beans inside are still small. Unlike mature beans, which are often dried or canned and sit in our pantries so we can eat them during any season, green beans are great eaten fresh and they’re a summer staple.

That’s not to say that green beans can’t be processed to last longer, they can be. Seasons are incongruous that way: they either ground us in the present and encourage us to enjoy the best tastes of that moment or drive us to preserve those delicious moments that we can’t let go of. Our quest to preserve the grassy, sweet, summery taste locked inside a green bean led us to canning and fermentation. Canning green beans, in particular, left a unique historical legacy in Northern California: a small town 100 miles north of San Francisco became the birthplace of some of the most sought-after green beans in the world. Since humans figured out how to domesticate green beans, these legumes have been intertwined with our need to preserve food to fuel long journeys, fight wars, and ensure our survival. Different preservation methods carved out surprising paths for the green bean and its globe-trotting adventures started 2,000 miles south of the Bay Area about 8,000 years ago.

new american seeds

Green beans are the quintessential all-American vegetable, continentally speaking.

The green bean originated in the Americas and the people who lived in the Mesoamerican area of Central America and in the Andes in South America domesticated them 8,000 years ago. For millennia, the native peoples who lived in the North American southwest and throughout Central and South America grew beans to full maturity. Green beans were often fibrous and tough to eat and they were only eaten during the hunger season. Hunger season started at the beginning of spring when stored food reserves were depleted and bean plants were still growing. It wasn’t much of a choice, but American indigenous peoples ate some of the tough green beans as they waited for the heartier, nutritious, and tender beans to fully grow.

Even though beans provided essential nutrition for hundreds of thousands of people they never quite made it into California until relatively recently when cultivating the soil became more common. Indigenous peoples in California did not have much pressure to adopt agriculture and a hunter-gatherer life prevailed until the Spanish established their missions in the 1700s and began cultivating crops including imported beans, apricots, and dozens of other non-native crops. 

european flatulophobia

By the time Europeans began colonizing the American continent, they regularly ate beans like chickpeas and lentils but were skeptical of all the different kinds of beans the native peoples in the Americas consumed.

When green beans and fully grown beans made it across the Atlantic for the first time, they had a lukewarm reception at best and from the late 15th century through the 17th, Europeans avoided beans altogether. The middle and upper classes advised against eating beans for fear of excessive farting (yes, flatulophobia is the fear of farting) but some made exceptions for green beans. The French elite, in particular, enjoyed growing pretty green bean plants, fell in love with the expensive haricots verts (a tender, slender green bean), and cooked them fresh from their kitchen gardens during the short spring season.

Throughout the late 1700s and 1800s, the French, like the British, also dried or pickled the haricots verts in vinegar but the British were not keen at all on eating them fresh. The green bean eating habits in France and Britain as well as French and British advancements in food preservation technology at the beginning of the 19th century ended up paving the way for large-scale green canning operations in northern California. How did green beans venture out from their fancy French gardens to the Golden State? It all started with a chef, a merchant, tin, and the navy.

le canned

In 1810, Nicholas Appert—a French chef and inventor—figured out how to use pressure and heat to kill the nasty microorganisms that could spoil food and bottled seasonal fruits and vegetables in glass containers. He thought of preserving his microorganism-free food in tin cans, but at that time, French tin was subpar and not a viable option. Storing food in glass was an important advancement in food technology, but glass broke easily so it wasn’t very practical. Another French inventor, Philippe de Girard, knew that British tin quality was much better than anything he could get at home and he figured out how to sterilize food in tin containers using Appert’s techniques.

To get his revolutionary creation out into the world, de Girard hired a British merchant so he could get a patent in Britain. The merchant got him the royal patent and then sold it to two entrepreneurs in 1812 who saw a huge opportunity and began a new venture canning beans, meats, and other vegetables for the British Army and Navy. The British military loved it—ordering up to 9,000 pounds of food at a time—and canning took off. Soldiers and sailors finally had access to food that required no heating to eat, had little risk of spoiling (so long as it was sterilized during the canning process), and could survive long journeys without breaking. This novel tin canning technology made it over to the United States in 1822 and, 40 years later, the American canning industry boomed as a result of the Civil War. By the 1890s, canning technology improved significantly and enticed a resort owner and entrepreneur in Ukiah, California to abandon his hospitality business and open up a green bean cannery instead.

bean-tech entrepreneurs

In 1900, Elizabeth and her husband Henry Wambold owned a northern California resort on the shore of Blue Lakes in Ukiah. Mrs. Wambold’s garden yielded too many green beans one summer so she canned them and shared them with neighbors who loved them.

This gave the Wambolds the idea for a side hustle: they partnered with a neighboring farmer, Adolphus Mendnehall, and launched a cannery start-up right next to Ukiah’s beautiful Blue Lakes. Like entrepreneurs 100 years later who built silicon empires, the Wambolds grew the cannery into a major industry and Mendenhall, their chief scientist, experimented with growing green beans and developed a plump, mild, and sweet green bean that everyone loved.

Mendenhall’s Blue Lake Green Bean took off as one of the most sought after green beans—in the world! Demand went through the roof, and during harvest season in September, as many as 400 migrant workers descended on the Upper Lake Valley to collect and can the beans. But until the 1920s, as famous as the green beans had become, they had one major drawback that confined it to a can and made it annoying to prepare fresh: these early green beans still had an unpleasant stringy texture.

Tender and round: Blue Lake type green beans from my CSA, ready for a quick salty blanch.

no strings attached

Green beans, like the early Blue Lakes, can develop a tough stringy texture that tenderizes after a long boil or, similar to some peas, they can also grow a string along the seam that requires manual removal (hence the green bean moniker, string beans). In 1923, Oregon farmers got a hold of the Blue Lake green bean cultivar and started working on improving their texture.

Ten thousand acres of beans, thousands of research hours, and four decades later, a stringless green bean masterpiece called “Blue Lake 274” hit the market. Chefs, home cooks, gardeners, and bean lovers go nuts for Blue Lake green beans and they are some of the most sought after green beans—274s run out of stock fast at many seed companies. Other than the delicious taste and crunchy texture, Blue Lake green beans play an important role in the green bean world because they’re one of two parents for dozens and dozens of green bean varieties. Green bean varieties fall into two types of green beans: round Blue Lake green beans, or flat Kentucky Wonders. So if you’ve had round green beans lately, it is likely they are some kind of variety of the Blue Lake type, a green bean that sprouted by chance in Ukiah and became famous by entrepreneurs looking to conquer green bean immortality.

Appert, de Girard, the Wambolds, and Mendenhall may have leveraged the Industrial Revolution to slow down green bean time. But the late 17th century British and French cooks who pickled their green beans unknowingly leveraged ancient wisdom and a microscopic army to extend the short and delightful green bean seasons they cherished so much.

the wild world of fermentation

The ancient wisdom I’m talking about is pickling, and a technology that goes back more than 10,000 years. To better understand how 17th-century haricots verts remained edible and nutritious after being submerged in vinegars and brines for weeks, we need to explore the fascinating properties of fermentation. There are two main fermentation methods that work well for extending the shelf life of a green bean: fermentation in vinegar or in a salty brine. Unlike canning—a modern invention that works because the heat and pressure it calls for kill all bacteria—fermentation relies on keeping specific types of bacteria alive to preserve food.

micro alcoholic love affairs

The main natural preservative in pickled green beans is vinegar. Vinegar preserves food like green beans because the acidic liquid inhibits the growth of microorganisms that can spoil them while keeping non-spoiling bacteria alive.

The origin of vinegar coincides with the discovery of wine, which technically occurred around 12,000 BC when water and honey pooled in tree crevices and gifted humans mead, i.e. honey wine. The reason wine and vinegar are interconnected is that as yeast munches on sweet fruit or honey, it converts those sugars into alcohol and then acetic acid bacteria crash the party and convert that alcohol to acetic acid, in other words, vinegar. That’s why you can taste that booze-to-vinegar transformation after you leave a bottle of unfinished wine on the counter for a week! And for millennia, humans have enjoyed both: Babylonians fermented dates into alcoholic beverages and then used the vinegar created from that date palm wine to preserve and pickle their food. How common was vinegar pickling? As Dr. Patrick McGovern, Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the Penn Museum, explains, with the wide availability of high sugar fruits worldwide, which can be readily fermented to vinegar, history is full of food preserved in vinegar. But with infinite supplies in seas, lakes, caves, and oceans, history is also full of salty preserves.

the only rock we eat

Salt allows us to preserve vegetables and other foods by leveraging a process known as lacto-fermentation. The Handbook of Fermented Functional Foods, an exhaustive tome written by 50 researchers and scientists, suggests that vegetables were first preserved by people using salt or seawater and that vegetable fermentation may have started in China. Coastal communities probably used salt for food preservation and there is evidence of salt harvesting in China in 6,000 BC. The construction of the Great Wall of China may have even been fueled by vegetables lacto-fermented in salty brines. So how exactly does this ancient preservation method work to extend green bean shelf-life?

In a nutshell, salt creates an unbearable environment for the bad microorganisms that can grow in our food and make us sick. But the good bacteria we need (Lactobacillales) tolerate the salty medium and love having little competition as they feast on the food we want to preserve. As the Noma Guide to Fermentation explains, when Lactobacillales eat the sugars in the green beans, they produce a handy by-product called lactic acid: a natural preservative that keeps the nutrients in our fermented green beans and gives them that delicious tangy funk.

Fresh ancient Mesoamerican green beans and canned haricots verts may not have been the most delicious but they did help us carry on through famines and long, arduous journeys. And whether we use vinegar or salt to preserve our green beans, one thing is clear: we are indebted to bacteria for having helped us preserve food this way for so long. If we want to put that bacteria to work so we can save this summer’s green beans for later, now is an excellent time to get started.

green bean your life

With our warm summer fully underway, green beans are all around us here in the Bay Area. Though the seasonality of green beans is generally from June to November, it does change slightly depending on green bean variety. Thanks to the information CUESA shares on their website, we can see when Bay Area green beans are in season. As you’ll see, July and August represent a seasonality overlap between many of the varieties grown around here—now is the time to try ‘em all!

When you buy fresh green beans, look for firm ones with no blemishes. Green beans do not like to be stored wet so do not wash them before putting them away and store them in a reusable bag squeezing out as much air as possible in the fridge’s crisper drawer. Fresh green beans will last for about a week.

bon apetit

I usually blanch my green beans to retain that lovely crunch and though I haven’t made them with capers yet, I’m excited to try this simple lemon zest and capers recipe (personally I prefer to cook them in super salty water for about 1 minute instead of 3-4 like the recipe says to get the extra crunch). I’m also curious to roast and char my green beans with garlic and lemon the nom nom paleo way or broil them with Sichuan peppercorns. I can’t recall the last time I had green beans for breakfast and I’ve been making lots of corn tortillas from scratch lately so I’m planning on making Nancy’s ejotes con huevos, green beans with eggs, one of these weekends.

That should satisfy the fresh green bean cravings, but what about pickled or fermented green beans? Making your own pickled green beans is a fantastic way to afford supermarket luxuries: while 16oz of fresh organic green beans cost $3-5, a 16oz jar of pickled organic green beans costs $8-12! As a pickling novice, I’ll start with Kale & Compass’ easy fridge green bean pickles recipe. After learning so much about fermentation, I can’t possibly pass on the opportunity to ferment green beans so I’m adding Homstead and Chill's recipe to my list (if you’re curious about lacto-fermenting fruit, you should try blueberries too before their season ends).

the delicious present

Green beans inspired humans to attempt to conquer time by leaving us no choice but to eat them during hunger seasons, by pushing us to immortalize them in metal, or by connecting us to the billion-year-old powers of the original microscopic inhabitants of Earth. Their delicious taste, however, is also grounding and has the power to snap us back to the present. So, while you enjoy your next crunchy, fermented, pickled, blanched, or broiled green bean, take it all in and be present in that unpreservable, fleeting, delicious moment.

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Andrea Castillo is a food nerd who always wants to know the what’s, how’s, when’s, and why’s of the food she eats.