Beans have played a vital role in the nutritional health of many cultures from ancient times to the present. Evidence on the extent of their cultivation and consumption abounds: from the royal tombs of ancient Egypt to the classical Greece of Homer's Iliad to the Old Testament. The use of legumes as a basic dietary staple can be traced back more than 20,000 years in some Eastern cultures, while the common bean, the lima bean and the pinta, or cranberry, bean were cultivated for the first time in the very earliest Mexican and Peruvian civilisations more than 5,000 years ago, being popular in both the Aztec and Inca cultures.
Ten thousand-year-old lentil remains have been uncovered on the banks of the Euphrates River in what is now Northern Syria. In ancient Gaul, chickpeas appeared as an ingredient in vegetable soup as early as the 7th century B.C. Homer, in the "Illiad," compared arrows bouncing off Menelaos' breastplate to chickpeas being thrown by a winnower. On the far side of the Mediterranean, chickpeas were found in Bronze Age deposits in Jericho and Babylon.
Lentils are known to have been favored by the ancient Egyptians - the remains of a paste of lentils was found in 3rd Century B.C. tombs at Thebes and a 2nd Century B.C. fresco shows lentil soup being prepared in the time of Ramses II - but less well regarded in ancient Greece where they were thought of as "poor man's food."
Although faba beans (what we call fava beans today) were widely cultivated in ancient times, they weren't always prized. Ancient Greeks associated the dark spots on faba beans with death, and forbad their priests from eating them. Centuries later in Rome, however, the Elder Pliny extolled the nutritional value of faba beans and the writer Apicius included numerous faba bean recipes in "De Re Conquinaria," widely regarded as the world's first cook book.
The botanical name for chickpeas, Cicer arietinum, from Aries (the ram), refered to the ram's head-like shape of the seed. Cicer was the latin name for the crop and it has often been assumed that the Roman rhetorician and philosopher Cicero was so named because he had a wart on his nose the size of a chickpea. Whether or not this was the case, chickpeas and warts remained inextricably linked, at least where Italian is spoken; the Italian "ceci" means both wart and chickpea.
Cultivation and consumption of chickpeas and faba beans gradually spread throughout Europe. In the 9th century, as Charlemagne tried to restore productivity to lands ravaged by war, he ordered that chickpeas be one of the crops planted on the pilot farms of his domains. The Italian writer and academic, Umberto Eco maintains that the cultivation of beans in Europe during the Middle Ages was of enormous importance, saving Europeans from the tragic fate of malnutrition and possible extinction.
By the 16th Century, with ships fanning out across the globe, Europeans began to be introduced to some of the exotic foods the New World had to offer, among them the common bean. So called because of its scientific name Phaseolus vulgaris, the name "common bean" refers to the seeds of many different beans, including the dry varieties that the English dubbed "kidney beans" in order to distinguish them from their Old World cousins. These hardy New World legumes soon became a poular crop in Europe because they were both highly nutritious, and easy to grow and store. And because of their nutritional value and ease of storage, they became a primary food for sailors, which is how the Navy bean got it's name.
Gianbattista Barpo, the 16th Century author of the weighty agricultural and gastronomical volume "Le Delizie," wrote about the health and nutritional benefits of bean consumption. And he created quite a stir when he suggested that beans were not only beneficial to the kidneys and spleen, but their consumption would enhance male sexual peformance.
Italian Renaissance gourmet Bartholomew Scappi described dishes of beans, eggs, cinnamon, walnuts, sugar, onions and butter in his cookbooks. Catherine d' Medici of Florence was supposedly so enamoured of the beans that grew in her native land, that she smuggled some to France when she married Henry, Duke of Orleans, later to become King Henry II of France. If this story is to be believed, we can thank Catherine for the invention of cassoulet, a "French" delicacy made with goose fat, duck or lamb and white beans.
Despite occasional nods from royalty, beans were seen as a meat substitute for the poor and rarely graced the tables of the upper classes. During times of hardship like the Great Depression in the United States, beans were promoted as a source of protein, as meat was scarce and expensive. World War II increased the demand for beans as they became a staple in the C-rations used by United States servicemen around the world. After the war, as the United States' food relief efforts around the world intensified, so did dry bean production.
In the United States, with its increasingly health-conscious society, beans are a welcome addition to the mainstream pantry. They are one of the most nutritionally complete foods available; in fact they are the only food to fit into two groups on the USDA Food Guide Pyramid: vegetable and protein. Studies confirm that a diet incorporating beans, with their low caloric count and high fibre content, helps to lower cholesterol. The combination of indisputable health benefits and incredible variety of flavors and textures ensures the bean's prominent place at the modern table.