“Κυάμων ἀπέχεσθαι” (“Abstain from beans.”)For a guy who was most famous for a theorem often recognized as one of the building blocks of modern mathematics, Pythagoras was a crackpot. A total nutjob. A lunatic. Really out there, is what we’re getting at. If you want an early look at a Jim Jones-esque cult in the ancient world, look no further than the Pythagoreans.
--Pythagoras of Samos
However, one of the beliefs espoused by this small society of differently rational individuals which often meets with the most ridicule by those first studying their ways turns out (as so many behaviors of that sort do) to have a reasonable basis. Pythagoras’ importuning of his followers to abstain from beans was probably a specific reference to the fava (Vicia faba). And it may have saved at least some of them from a fairly painful death from complications resulting from glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, also known as favism.
This condition affects certain elements of Mediterranean and African populations; carriers of the G6PD allele have a degree of resistance to malaria, which explains why the condition evolved, but it sadly renders them unable to eat fava beans without sometimes fatal interactions with the high levels of vicine and convicine in the beans. High levels of tyramine also make favas dangerous for those who consume certain MAOI inhibiting drugs as a treatment for depression or other psychiatric conditions.
Now that we’ve scared you... let’s talk about how wonderful fava beans are! (Because, you know, they are!) Somewhere around 10% of those with Mediterranean ancestry need to worry about favism; the rest of us need to worry about how to get enough favas in our gardens and on our plates, and Pythagoras can go jump in a lake.
The history of fava cultivation is long – as long, in fact, as any crop other than the earliest stands of wheat-like plants which represented the first human attempts at agriculture. To this day, farmers from India, Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Sicily, Sudan, Greece, Ethiopia, Nepal, and even Peru and Colombia grow favas in basically the same way as farmers would have done six or seven thousand years ago.
Favas are a cool weather crop, which surprises those who are not familiar with how they are grown – one would not associate a plant from North Africa and the Mediterranean with “cool weather” but there you go. In northern climates, or in mountainous areas (Ethiopia or Iran, for example) favas are easy to grow in the summer, but elsewhere (Egypt? Southeast Texas?) one would grow them in fall, winter, and early spring. In fact, one of the best reasons to grow favas is their ability to overwinter; we have had luck with plants surviving the harshest freezes the Brazos Valley can dish out; snow has not fazed them, though last winter’s ice storm, where freezing rain coated them with a half-inch of ice did wipe out a sizable portion of our crop – sizable, but not complete; several plants survived even that amount of cold-weather abuse.
In addition to the beans, whose culinary uses we’ll describe in greater detail in a moment, the plants themselves have a lot going for them. Favas are one of the best beans available in terms of nitrogen affixing qualities. A plot which has been overwintered with favas is perfectly ready come spring to grow practically anything you want with no soil additives necessary – corn, tomatoes, whatever you will.
Further, a mature fava plant can stand anywhere from three to five feet high, standing straight upright with leaves radiating outward only six to twelve inches, with white or purple flowers (depending on variety) which provide the local bee population with all the winter forage their little hearts could desire, creating a showpiece in your winter garden that will be the envy of your neighborhood. When everything else is dead and brown, favas are gloriously and optimistically green and vibrant.
As if that weren’t enough… the leaves and flowers are tasty additions to the salad bowl. Many of the same nutritional qualities found in the beans are found in the leaves and flowers. High in fiber, high in protein, with a complete panoply of B vitamins, C and K vitamins, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Phosphorous, Potassium and Zinc, favas are also one of two classes of beans (velvet beans aka mucuna pruriens being the other) which contain L-DOPA, a naturally occurring dopamine agonist, basically a naturally occurring anti-depressant. And if that weren’t good enough, L-DOPA is also a natriuretic agent, potentially hypotensive… ie. lowers blood pressure.
The beans are eaten in about as many different ways as there are cultures which have been exposed to them. Historically, both the Romans and Greeks took young beans and parboiled them, occasionally eating them as a puree. Mature beans are often fried and salted or spiced (this is popular everywhere from Latin America to Thailand). Chinese cooking features a paste called la doubanjiang (“hot pepper beans”) and in Mexico habas con chile are eaten much like spiced peanuts are consumed in the U.S.
As such, it comes as no surprise that favas are the most widely consumed food in North Africa. The Egyptians eat ful medames the same way Norwegians eat fish. In the Sudan, mashed favas flavored with sesame oil and a bit of Jibna (sheep-cheese, similar to Feta) form the basis for the most common lunch entrée. In Morocco, street vendors serve up a fava bean dip called bessara the way New Yorkers eat hot dogs. Ethiopian shiro flour forms the basis of most of their dishes, and one of the main ingredients in the flour is favas. And numerous dishes important to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church make heavy use of favas.
And speaking of religion… there is a long history of theological/spiritual/supernatural association with the fava. Pythagoras and his followers were vegetarians owing to an intriguing form of animism in which they believed not only in reincarnation for human and animal spirits, but also for the spirit of beans – details are sketchy because reliable witnesses tended not to get invited to their parties, but that’s as believable an interpretation of what data is available as any other.
The Romans would make an offering of favas to the lemures (“house ghosts”) on the festival known as Lemuria. In Ubykh culture (historically people from the Southern Caucasus mountains in modern Georgia, Armenia and Turkey) there was a form of fortunetelling anthropologists refer to as “favamancy” where fava beans were thrown on the ground (similar to the throwing of bones in Norse culture). In the Ubykh language, in fact, the word for “fortune teller” was literally “bean thrower”. And in much of Italy, to this day, fava beans are traditionally planted on November 2nd, All Souls Day.
At Myrtle’s place, we do not ascribe any magical powers to the fava bean, nor do we believe they house the souls of long departed ancestors. We do treat them with reverence, however, because they meet so many of the standards we have set for what makes a good garden plant: they grow easily, and once sprouted do not require much in the way of maintenance. They are hard to kill. They produce tasty and nutritious fruit. And by the time they die off each Spring, they have left the soil better than it was when they found it. They are the best possible plant for the cool half of the year, in fact.
And in the Brazos Valley, October is when to plant them. We can hardly wait.