“We’re just here for the beans.”
That’s what we told the waiter at Maximo Bistrot in Mexico City, where my husband, Carl, and I were honeymooning.
We had considered a handful of destinations, but CDMX was at the top of our list for several reasons: we had scored cheap nonstop flights from Washington, DC; Carl had never been and I was eager to show him just what he had been missing; and what he had been missing, more than anything else, was the food.
For me, the appeal goes even deeper: Mexico City is not just the capital of our vibrant, fascinating neighbor to the south. It’s the seat of a culinary culture ruled by three kings: corn, chiles, and beans. And as a longtime vegetarian who reveres beans as the most important plant-based protein in the world and as someone who grew up in West Texas, immersed in Mexican-American culture, I consider Mexico the bean-all and end-all. Every Mexican chef I’ve ever met has waxed poetic about them: scoops of frijoles borrachos (drunken beans) nestled in fresh corn tortillas; complex stews made from slowly cooked black beans, fresh and dried chiles and the pungent herb epazote; and smoke-kissed purees slathered on fried masa boats, topped with lime-dressed greens. It’s one of the many reasons I’ve always felt at home there.
This time, I knew that on and among our visits to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, Frida Kahlo’s and Diego Rivera’s homes and museums, street food tours, art galleries, and markets, I would be on a mission to taste as many bean dishes as I could find. And in my research, one chef emerged as the bean whisperer: Maximo owner Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia. I had heard that he was passionate, with a fascinating background, and that he served a spectacular bean soup at his tasting-menu restaurant.
We got to Maximo an hour before our reservation, just so we could talk to Garcia about beans, which, no surprise, are one of his favorite subjects. In addition to his history lessons about them, Mexican cooking, and the impact of NAFTA on his country’s culture, he described his “very, very old-fashioned” soup, made with beans he gets from the state of Hidalgo. They’re called cacahuate, because they resemble peanuts when raw, but . . . he was fresh out.
Out? I’m sorry, what? We had come all that way to see the master of beans in the world capital of beans only to be told . . . no dice, no beans. A young Los Angeles chef had visited just a day or two earlier, Garcia explained, and he had sent her home with the rest of his stash. I had a hunch: “Was it Jessica Koslow from Sqirl?” He nodded, laughed that I would, of course, know all the other American bean obsessives, and then, when he saw my face fall and recognized the depth of my disappointment, he turned serious. He started scrolling through his phone, I assumed checking emails, texts, or calendar reminders. Good news: He was scheduled for another bean delivery that weekend. He hadn’t planned it, but he’d make the soup for us—that is, as long as we would still be in town and could return.
We would, we could, and we did. A few days later, as we sat down for lunch—the only customers in the place getting just the bean soup rather than the multi-course tasting menu—the anticipation started nagging at me. How good could these beans actually be?
The waiter brought us two big bowls of soup: the beans were super-creamy and golden in color, fatter than pintos, with a broth that was so layered and deep and, well, beany, that it made me swoon. It seemed so simple—just beans and broth and pico de gallo—that I could hardly believe how much flavor I was tasting. My husband, still recovering from a bout of Montezuma’s Revenge, seemed to come back to life before my very eyes. We tore into a basket of blue corn tostadas, and I slugged a Minerva beer in between spoonfuls of the soup. We left happy and restored.
Such is the power of the humble bowl of beans.
As a category of food, beans are old, ancient even. Forward- thinking cooks have been talking about ancient grains for years now—my friend Maria Speck helped popularize the idea in her book Ancient Grains for Modern Meals
—but some beans are just as old as grains. According to Ken Albala’s masterful 2007 book Beans: A History
, among the first plants domesticated, some 10,000 years ago, were einkorn wheat, emmer, barley—and lentils.
Lentils are so old that people who say lentils are shaped like lenses have got it backward; the world’s first lenses got their name because they were shaped like lentils. That’s old. In fact, there’s evidence that thousands of years before they were domesticated, in 11,000 BC, people in Greece were cooking wild lentils.
Pythagoras talked about fava beans, Hippocrates about lupinis, and one particularly famous orator is even more deeply connected to chickpeas: His family took its name (Cicero) from the legume’s genus (Cicer
). Ancient Indian rituals and early Sanskrit literature feature mung beans. In the New World, the remains of beans were found in a Peruvian Andean cave dated to 6000 BC. Mentions of black beans show up in the writings of ancient Mayans. A little younger is the soybean, but it has made up for lost ground by becoming, as Albala writes, “the most widely grown bean on the planet, the darling of the food industries and genetically one of the most extensively modified of all plants.”
So why do beans have, well, something of a fusty reputation, especially here in the West?
I think a couple of things are going on: first, there’s the unavoidable association with hippies, the memories of three-bean chilis stirred by pot-smoking countercultural types. But perhaps more importantly, beans worldwide have almost always been associated with poverty. (An exception is India, where the prominence of vegetarian eating ensures that beans have been appreciated by the highest castes.) America, as a relatively young country built on grand ambitions and looking for inspiration, perhaps has historically paid more attention to the cooking of the world’s elite and less to the cooking of the more resourceful lower classes.
That’s been changing, thankfully. As immigrants continue to shape American cuisine and we pay more attention to our own native traditions, we’ve started to realize just how deep the roots of bean cookery go.
Copyright © 2020 by Joe Yonan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.