The Sisterhood of Bean Hole Beans and Mustard Seeds
Long before my European ancestors came to this continent, Native Americans were tending to many of the crops I enjoy today. It’s thanks to their dedicated care and generous sharing that we get to eat popcorn at the movies, curl up to a warm bowl of chili after a day in the snow, and enjoy a big slice of pumpkin pie. But our grocery-store varieties of these New World crops pale to the gorgeous diversity of available options, not to mention those forgotten varieties now lost to history. Likewise, the massive monoculture agricultural practices we employ today lack the care and understanding of their traditional cultivation.
One of the best examples of this are the Three Sisters, a type of companion planting the Native Americans used to cultivate corn, beans, and squash. They developed this system over centuries of care and it was more than just a way to produce food; it represented their view of gardens as communities rather than factories. In legend, these three plants were a gift from the gods and were meant to be grown, celebrated, and eaten together. Even today sustainable agriculture and permaculture enthusiasts use this model to demonstrate successful “companion planting”; that is, plants that are mutually beneficial to each other. Corn, the oldest sister, grows tall and strong, giving Bean a stake to grow on. In thanks Bean, the giving sister, fixes nitrogen into the soil to nourish her sisters. Squash’s protective large leaves spread below, blocking out weeds and keeping the soil shaded so it can retain moisture for longer. Her prickly stems also discourage pests from nibbling on any of them. Together, they grow much stronger than any of them would if planted alone. (Much like us humans, don’t you think?) In the soup pot, too, they work as a team: the combination of the three provides complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, and all eight essential amino acids to nourish the people that grow them. They are so nourishing that many Native American tribes were able to thrive on a mostly plant-based diet.
Unlike the depletion many of our agricultural practices have on the land, the Three Sisters left the land richer than it was before. In this system, everybody benefited - the individual plants, the people that tended to them, and even Mama Earth herself.
When European settlers arrived on the New Continent, they learned about many new vegetables, fruits, and herbs from the Natives. Unfortunately, they didn’t necessarily learn the root of their practices, a spiritual reverence for other beings and a strong basis in community. The model of a mutually beneficial partnership with the land was one they were not able to embrace and instead they saw land, and all that grew on it, as a commodity to be owned instead of a gift to be shared. That attitude has been responsible for the depletion of thousands of acres of agricultural land, not to mention the heartbreaking decimation of Native American cultures and people. Eating these foods so generously shared with us centuries ago is a needed reminder of our responsibility to humanity to be kind neighbors and good caretakers.
And while we may not be able to mend the damage of greed and ignorance in our country, we can start small by once again focusing on community. At that center of community, you’ll probably find a pot of something delicious, stewing away, ready to feed all who have gathered. Food is meant to be shared. So are seeds.
As bright flowers give way to rattling seedpods, our attention is increasingly drawn to harvesting and preserving the bounty around us. Spicy mustard seeds fall from their papery casings into spice jars. Gem-like beans shine like precious stones. If you’ve never tried saving your own seeds, please do - it is such a beautiful practice of gratitude and fertility. And by making those carefully-harvested seeds available to others, we promote genetic diversity and food security, protecting our food supplies. Should one of our main crops be hit with disease, we’ll have back-up options that may be resistant to that particular problem. We also have more options to use for breeding new varieties. There are several fantastic organizations that exist to promote genetic diversity in heirloom fruits and vegetables, such as Native Seeds/SEARCH (which focuses specifically on native varieties in the Southwest) and Seed Savers Exchange (which facilitates the sharing of heirloom varieties through their catalogue and trade-based member yearbook.)
Perhaps my favorite part of saving and sharing heirloom seeds, though, are the stories. Just browse the catalogues of the organizations above to learn each seed’s lore and history; my favorite is probably the Turkey Craw bean, which is reported to have been discovered in a wild turkey’s craw and then germinated successfully! These stories remind us that our foodstuffs are not just fuel for our bodies; they are a rich tapestry of history, interwoven with our heritage and humanity.
Beans are one of the best plants for a novice seed-saver as they are so easy to harvest and germinate. Watching a bean grow is ultimately satisfying because it’s just so apparent and visceral. They’re also a gorgeous representation of the diversity of the Americas. A handful of brilliant multi-colored beans contains an awful lot of history here on our soils. Though beans weren’t grown as much in the Pacific Northwest as they were further south, they were still a big part of Native diets as they were traded and gifted among tribes throughout the continent.
Toss all of those beautiful beans and their stories in a pot with some maple syrup and you have a hearty New England specialty: Bean-hole beans. These sweet-savory beans are baked in a cast iron pot in a pit in the ground, where they are left over coals to slowly cook overnight. The result are tender and hearty beans that hold their shape more than stovetop-cooked baked beans. They are particularly known for their history as a meal in the early lumber camps of Maine when hard-working lumberjacks needed an extra filling dinner.
The settlers of the East Coast learned about pit-cooked beans from the Native Americans, who used underground cooking techniques for many foods (including the famous camas root roasts that were eaten here in the Pacific Northwest.) They would cook their beans with maple syrup and often added other foodstuffs such as fish, corn, or venison. Beans quickly found their way into the culture of the new settlers, who added their own ingredients to the recipe, exchanging maple syrup for molasses and adding salt pork or bacon. It became a common Sunday meal in religious households that forbade cooking on the Sabbath as the fires could be lit Saturday night and the beans cooked overnight, then unearthed on Sunday for a hearty meal. The tradition of bean-hole beans traveled West with the covered wagons, morphing into the classic cookout staple we enjoy at barbecues today. And really, what summertime community cookout would be complete without them? How very fitting.
Add a little extra cowboy fortification to this tempting dish with the addition of feral mustard, which grows just about everywhere. Mustard is a member of the brassica clan, related to plants such as radish or broccoli. It has naturalized all over the West and can be found growing wild in fields and along the coast. (It’s particularly happy in our northern climates; did you know that Canada produces about 90% of the world’s supply of mustard?) Like beans, mustard seeds are a joy to harvest as the perfectly-round globes easily come tumbling out of their long seedpods. Harvest the seedpods when the plants begin to yellow and let the pods dry. As they dry they will open, releasing their seeds. Then you just have to remove the seedpods either by hand or by gently winnowing. And you don’t have to worry about over-harvesting; since mustard is a prolific grower and aggressive weed, you are able to harvest as much as you’d like. To use, just grind the dried seeds to a powder in a mortar and pestle or use them whole or cracked for more rustic sauces or condiments.
The word “mustard” comes from the dead Latin phrase “mustrum ardens,” because Romans mixed the peppery seed into wine must. They believed it to be invigorating and used it as a blood tonic and aphrodisiac. (This sour and spicy preparation was the precursor to the paste we now spread on our hamburgers and hotdogs.) Mustard was highly valued throughout the ancient world as both a medicine and a flavoring. It’s been used as a warming spice in all manner of ways, from treating sore muscles in a bath to soothing coughs as a chest poultice to stimulating appetite when eaten as a condiment. A mustard seed is even compared to the kingdom of heaven in the Bible and has come to represent faith. Faith in your food, faith in your community, faith in your sisterhoods. And yeah, faith in these beans!
Heirloom Bean-Hole Beans with Wild Mustard:
A beautiful jar of layered heirloom beans makes a fantastic gift when paired with a seasoning packet and simple instructions. You can, of course, just make the recipe as listed but I thought I’d also include instructions for assembling it into kits to share with others. This recipe serves a crowd; you can halve it and use a smaller pot for a family dinner. Be sure to plan ahead as the beans need to soak overnight and then cook for another day or so. Also, if you plan to cook them in the traditional underground method, be aware of fire restrictions and safety. Do not start a fire near any tree roots and make sure you are safely out of fire season before lighting any outdoor fires!
For a quart jar:
4 c. dry beans
1 1/2 tsp. dry wild mustard seeds, ground
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. molasses or maple syrup
1/2 pound bacon
1 large onion
1/4 c. vinegar
(If desired) Assemble the Kit:
- Layer different colors of heirloom beans in a quart jar. Leave about 1/2” headspace.
- Mix together the dry mustard, salt, pepper, and brown sugar and place in a small bag. Add to the top of the jar (keep separate from the beans.)
Bean Hole Instructions:
- Soak beans overnight in water.
- Dig a hole 3’ deep and wide enough to leave 6” of space around your cast iron pot or Dutch Oven on all sides. Line the hole with stones. It’s best to use stones that have been used in campfires before to prevent cracks or breaks.
- Build a fire in the pit with dry hardwood and keep it going for several hours, until the hole is 3/4 full of glowing coals.
- While the fire is going, boil the pre-soaked beans for 45 minutes or until their skins start to peel back.
- When the coals are ready, line the bottom of a cast iron pot with the strips of bacon. Slice the onion into thin slices and layer that on top. Strain the cooked beans and pour them on top. Mix together the spices with the molasses and oxymel, then pour the mixture evenly over the top of the beans. Add enough boiling water to cover the beans by about an inch, then cover with aluminum foil and place the lid firmly on.
- Remove about half of the hot coals with a shovel, being careful to place them somewhere safe and fire-proof. Carefully lower the filled pot into the hole. Fill the space around the sides with coals, then place the remaining coals on top. Fill the pit the rest of the way with dirt.
- Let the beans stew overnight, then dig them up the next day (about 8-10 hours of baking.) Carefully extinguish the coals before you dive in and enjoy.
- Soak beans overnight in water. Rinse.
- Boil the beans for about 45 minutes or until the skins are starting to peel back. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 275F.
- Chop the bacon into 1” chunks and place in the bottom of a cast iron or casserole pan. Chop the onion into medium pieces and put them on top of the bacon. Drain the beans and add to the pot. Mix together the molasses, oxymel, and spices and pour the mixture evenly over the top. Pour in enough boiling water to top the beans by 1”.
- Bake for 6-8 hours, checking every now and then to see if the level of liquid has gone below the level of the beans. Add more water if needed to keep the beans covered for the duration of baking. Enjoy!
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