Wednesday, March 19, 2008


March 19 ...

As we discovered yesterday, the folk of Leicestershire used to be nicknamed “Bean Bellies”. I don’t suppose they still are, but here is the explanation for the name, given in a book from 1801.

‘Leicestershire … the air is sweet and wholesome. It is a champaign country in general, and abundantly fertile in corn and grass …. Besides wheat, barley, oats and pease, it produces the best beans in England. They grow so tall and luxuriant in some places, particularly about Barton-in-the-Beans, that they look, towards harvest-time, like a forest; and the inhabitants eat them not only when they are green, as in other places, but all year round; for which reason their neighbours nickname them bean-bellies.’

An ethnic slur with jealousy at its root, it seems:

‘Yea, those of the neighbouring countrys used to say merrily ‘Shake a Leicestershire many by the collar, and you shall hear the beans rattle in his belly.’ But those Yeomen smile at what is said to rattle in their bellies, whilst they know that good silver ringeth in their pockets.’ [1849]

This story is also meant to be a jibe, but there may be a good idea in it:

‘A story [about Leicestershire] that the mayor is chosen by a sow. The candidates sit in a semi-circle, each with his hat full of beans in his lap, and he is the mayor from whose hat the sow eats first.’

A brief potted history of beans is impossible: the origins are lost in the mists of antiquity, and their varieties too numerous to mention here, even if I knew them. That beans are extraordinarily nutritious, and that they have played a vital role in the diet of many cultures throughout history is not in doubt, but nevertheless they have suffered from their share of bad publicity over the centuries.

The followers of the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras were prohibited from eating beans, for obscure reasons that will occupy scholars in perpetuity. There are almost as many suggested explanations as there are bean varieties – everything from the risk of precipitating a blood crisis in folk with an inherited deficiency of the enzyme G6PD (it happens, it but it is very rare), to their appearance ‘like genitals’, and to the idea that the hollow stems act as a conduit for the passage of souls to and from the underworld. The commonest reason given is that they produce ‘flatulence’, although why this would be more of a problem to a mathematician I am not sure. The problem occurs as a result of the complex carbohydrates which this ‘musical fruit’ contains. These particular carbs are not able to be digested by humans, so the intestinal bacteria get to enjoy them - and it is their digestive processes, not ours, that produce the gas. Boiling reduces the problem, eating them regularly reduces the problem (the bacteria adjust, apparently), and some say adding garlic and onions to the recipe reduces the problem.

If you thought sweet bean dishes were a Chinese idea, consider this recipe, from a book which has one of my favourite titles – Adam’s Luxury and Eve’s Cookery; or, the Kitchen-Garden display’d.[1744]

Bean Tart
Boil and blanch Green Beans, then make a Puff-paste and put into Petty-pans. Put in a layer of Beans and a Layer of Sweetmeats, with Sugar between each Layer. Then cover them, and make a Hole on the Top; put in a Quarter of a Pint of Lemon-Juice, some Marrow, season’d with Salt, Nutmeg, Cloves, Mace. When bak’d put in a little White Wine thickened with the Yolk of an Egg and Butter into each Tart.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Cakes and Travellers.

Quotation for the Day …

But since he stood for England
And knew what England means,
Unless you give him bacon
You must not give him beans.
G.K. Chesterton.


Lidian said...

I had no idea that they were so fond of beans in Leicestershire!

entspinster said...

Pythagoras was not only a mathematician, but a spiritual leader. His followers, who, unusually for his time, included women and slaves, were expected to be vegatarians and wear only cloth made from vegtable fibers. As plant foods go, beans are rather "meaty", and the desire for serene purity does not go well with eructation, It is also said that beans were used as vote counters in ancient Greece, and so abstaining from beans meant keeping out of political issues, which are seldon serene or peaceful.

There is an interesting bok called "Pythogorus's Trousers", about the weirdness throughout history of mathematicians and physicists. (Classical Greeks considered trousers unfit for civilisted wear.)


The Old Foodie said...

Hello entspinster: this is really interesting information that you have given us here. I must get hold of that book, it sounds fascinating.

cpet said...

Boil the beans with a bit of baking soda. I've read this lately and tried it - so far so good.