Beans of Burden

Rediscovering Hank’s X-tra Special Baking Bean

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The singular Hank’s Beans packaging by Hudson Valley
Seed Library and illustrator Melissa Washburn

On a night in January, a diverse group of food enthusiasts gathered at the MOFAD (Museum of Food and Drink) in Brooklyn, and the cause célèbre was a bean. Yes, a bean: Hank’s X-tra Special Baking Beans. What made the beans worthy of celebration is the story of their rescue from extinction here in the Hudson Valley.

“Saving the story is as important as saving the seeds,” said Ken Greene, managing and creative director of the Hudson Valley Seed Library, referring to the lore of the bean.

And so the story goes: Peg Lotvin discovered a jar of beans in her father Hank’s basement in Ghent a few years after his death. Although they hadn’t been grown in years, as a seed saver herself, she recognized the beans’ biological and cultural value; the beans had played an important role in the food story of her family and community. Lotvin had fond memories of her father’s gardening skills—the family was never without a fine selection of fresh vegetables. These beans were simply another product of his prolific garden, grown explicitly for baked bean dishes popular at garden-sourced potlucks and picnic offerings in Ghent. Each year at harvest, Hank had two objectives: Save the heartiest-looking beans for cultivating the next year’s crop and be sure some of the harvest gets into the hands of his neighbor, Flossy. Renowned throughout their community, Flossy made baked beans that were by all accounts beyond compare.

With newly unearthed beans in hand, Lotvin appealed to Greene, who is also a renowned seed saver and conservator of horticultural heritage in the Hudson Valley.

And it was through their collaboration that this ordinary garden bean was anointed “X-tra special.” Greene explained that he was working on an alphabetized vegetable project for the children’s library in Gardiner and he was at a loss for a vegetable for the letter X. Thus, an old jar of beans found in a basement became Hank’s X-tra Special Beans. Greene also shared that, while cherished, not all Lotvin’s memories were “good”: Harvesting, threshing, sorting and cleaning beans did not necessarily equate to summer fun.

Though it had been longer than five years since the beans had been germinated and grown, Greene was keen to save them and their rich story and so entered them into the Seed Library’s catalog. There was no way to know how long the uncovered quart-size jar had been sitting on the basement shelf. Given the fact that Hank had passed five years before, and to Lotvin’s memory had not gardened much in the five years before that, chances were the beans were 10 to 15 years old. But with nothing to lose, Lotvin and Greene gave it a go. To their delight, approximately 25 percent of the beans germinated. Since then, Lotvin and Greene had been growing and sharing the beans among themselves and friends, with occasional abundance being sold through the Seed Library.

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PHOTOGRAPH: COURTESY OF GLYNWOOD

Fantastic Beans and Where to Find Them

Outlining the next chapter for the evening’s participants, Sara Grady, vice president of programs at Glynwood (a Cold Spring– based nonprofit committed to supporting and promoting regional agriculture), highlighted the importance of identifying and developing a regional cuisine and how this is best achieved through collaboration among chefs and growers. To that end, Glynwood, along with the Hudson Valley Chefs’ Network (HVCN) and the Hudson Valley Seed Library, sought to identify a food that would easily lend itself to such a mission. “We initiated our first seed grow-out as a way to spark a creative collaboration between regional restaurateurs and growers,” Grady explained. A rich story enhances any endeavor, be it a tasty dish, a bumper crop or a mission to rescue biodiversity, and the backstory of Hank’s X-tra Special Beans satisfied this criteria for all.

Because these particular beans were still at risk of becoming extinct, and so rich in regional history, Hank’s X-tra Special Beans were also a perfect candidate for Slow Food’s Ark of Taste initiative (see sidebar). Adding strength and credence to the story, Slow Food USA shepherded the bean’s nomination to the Ark of Taste, the worldwide catalog of regional foods that face and have faced extinction in the present and past. The initiative spotlights biodiverse foods from every region, saving cultural and culinary heritages as well. Among foods recently saved here in the Northeast are the Esopus Spitzenburg apple and a traditional vinegar-based drink known as a “shrub.”

Along with Glynwood, 10 chefs of the HVCN pledged to purchase the beans produced by six local farmers and to use them in their menus for a winter cassoulet event. As Grady recalled, “a beautiful story yielded a beautiful opportunity.”

By the time of the collaboration with Glynwood and the other growers and HVCN, Greene and Lotvin had gradually cultivated approximately 20 pounds of beans for growing, 15 of which were designated for the “grow-out” or cultivation. Mimi Edelman, owner/farmer of I & Me Farm in Bedford Hills, as well as chair of the Northeast/New England Ark of Taste Committee, was one of the grow-out producers. Relating her participation in the collaboration—the typical challenges encountered by every farmer with any crop, any season, her deep appreciation for the spirited sense of community evolved at the “threshfest,” and of course, her greatest delight: ushering food to the Ark—it’s clear Edelman relishes this tale in her personal catalog of stories.

Collectively, the six farms, including the farm at Glynwood, yielded 100 pounds of beans, harvested last summer for the monthlong January cassoulet event throughout the Hudson Valley. The 100 pounds of beans were distributed to the HVCN chefs, who in turn presented them to the region as menu specials at events created to celebrate the bean. Living up to their reputation, the beans have a creamy inside while maintaining their bean shape well. Variations of cassoulet were served up at the Village Tearoom in New Paltz, Swoon in Hudson, Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua (to name but a few), thus reawakening us to one of the delights of our regional cuisine. As Megan Larmer, director of strategy and community engagement at Slow Food USA, wrapped up the story for us, we were reminded that there are typically two ways to save foods on the Ark and to protect our culinary heritage: Create demand to inspire more growth/ production; or decrease consumption to enable a species to renew/ regenerate. Happily, we are charged to eat the beans.

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The beans freshly threshed, and cooked in the pot
PHOTOGRAPHS: COURTESY OF GLYNWOOD

This telling of the story ends on a note of serendipity: Author Kate Hill, who was preparing to take her freshly penned cookbook, Cassoulet, a French Obsession on a world tour, was able to coordinate her first stop at the Brooklyn gathering in celebration of the rescue of Hanks X-tra Special Beans in the Northeast/NY/ Hudson Valley. Kate speaks “local” fluently and eloquently, extolling the virtues of the favorite food tradition of her home of choice (France): the cassoulet. With unbridled enthusiasm for our newly reclaimed local treasure, she served a debut sampling of a simple cassoulet she’d “whipped up” using our fabled beans. And all at once, we were all in the right place at the right time … culinarily enchanted and now felicitously included in the dramatis personae of the story of Hanks X-tra Special Baking Beans.

ABOUT THE SLOW FOOD ARK OF TASTE

The Ark of Taste is a Slow Food initiative aimed at preserving regional foods throughout the world from becoming extinct. A few current saved and celebrated Northeast regional foods on the Ark include: Delaware Oysters, Beach Plums and the Esopus Spitzenberg Apple (revisit our story of this local treasure at ediblehudsonvalley.com/editorial/fall-2014/ whisk-fall-2014)

Some of the criteria for a food to qualify for nomination to the Ark:

  • Outstanding taste
  • At-risk biologically or as a culinary tradition
  • Able to be sustainably produced Culturally or historically linked to a specific region, locality, community or traditional production practice.
  • Produced/available in limited quantities.

For more info, visit slowfoodusa.org/ark-of-taste-in-the-usa or contact the Slow Food Hudson Valley Chapter: info@slowfoodhudsonvalley.com.

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