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The bean field
(post, Ellen Kanner)
My beans are up, bursting from the soil in rows of earnest green shoots. The cowpeas, tiny purple black-eyed beauties, are a gift from my friend Muriel Olivares of Little River Market Garden. Big-hearted in the way that farmers are, Muriel gave them to me to plant as soil-enhancing, nitrogen-rich cover crops before I grow my vegetables in the fall.
I love legumes, but only from the eating end. Often slagged off as poor man’s meat, beans are indeed cheaper than meat and are little powerhouses of plant-based protein. I prepare beans every which way: black-eyed peas with fennel, crowder peas with tomatoes and okra, curried mung beans, white beans with lemon and sage. Now, thanks to Muriel, I’m growing them.
“Everything you plant should be edible,” says Muriel, whose field boasts cowpeas in excellent, established rows.
The two of us connected at Miami’s local community-food summit — "local" being a relative term in a city sprawling out for 50-plus miles. We’ve got farmers like Muriel, and we’ve got people like me who want to make local food accessible to everyone. We’re just trying to make the circuit easier.
"Field-to-table" takes on a whole new meaning, though, when the field is right outside the kitchen door. I am not by nature a gardener. Undaunted, I prepared my field (if I can dignify it by that name), planted my cowpeas, and crossed my fingers. A mere three days later, the first tender sprouts appeared — your standard-issue everyday miracle, which nonetheless made me swoony with pleasure.
Hey, I’m not the first. “What shall I learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden.
[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Cowpeas with Za'atar"]
Thoreau estimated he had seven miles of bean rows. I’m an urban girl with an urban garden, and if I have seven meters of bean rows, I’m lucky. But I cherish my beans no less for having fewer of them, and I have an advantage Thoreau did not. Seven miles of beans is a lot of beans, and whole sections would produce while he was busy working elsewhere. I can tend my cowpeas and take in their every beany nuance in a few strides. Thoreau would appreciate that. He might even be jealous.
He tended to be fonder of plants than of people. “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” he wrote. “To be in company, even with the best, is so wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” All right, Henry, we get it. But I think you missed out.
I do not come from a bean-loving family. My affinity for them comes from enjoying them at the tables of others. A neighbor from Georgia turned me on to black-eyed peas by way of hoppin' john, the Southern New Year’s Day tradition. I fell for crowders and okra in New Orleans. Home cooks from Morocco to Mumbai have shown me a million ways to love lentils. My Middle Eastern grocer introduced me to the mashed favas he ate in Jerusalem as well as to za’atar, a spice blend of sumac and sesame, and a whole world of spices my mouth would be lonelier without.
There is beauty in beans and serenity in solitude, but the real joy comes from sharing beans as well as growing them, from eating together and feeding each other. My field is small, my community large. Each provides pleasure and nourishment. I cultivate and cherish both.