Which raises the question: why, with all our science, has modern man not been able to take the fart out of beans?

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Beans and Bean Soup:
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

(e-SoupSong 10: February 1, 2001)

ONCE UPON A TIME, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, besieged and conquered Jerusalem. He carried back treasure and spoils--and he carried back some Israelite children, housing them in his palace and ordering that they be educated and fed like kings, with meat to eat and wine to drink. But little Daniel would have none of it. He begged his keepers the eunuchs to let him off the hook--no meat, no wine for me, he said. Sorry, they said, the king would notice if you weren’t as healthy as the others and we’d get in trouble. Uh-uh, said Daniel, not if I eat beans.

So they tried an experiment. For 10 days Daniel and his friends from Judah only ate beans and water. "And at the end of ten days their countenances appeared fairer and fatter in flesh than all the children which did eat the portion of the king’s meat" (Daniel 1:15). They ate those beans for three years, and when they finally stood before Nebuchadnezzar, "he found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers that were in all his realm" (Daniel 1:20).


Well, what kind of beans did Daniel eat, anyway?

Definitely not the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris). These sprang up in South America...and didn’t make the leap across the Atlantic until they traveled there in the pockets of New World explorers in the 1500s. (At that point, Europe pounced on these white, black, red kidney, pink, brown, and pinto beans, calling them cannellini, flageolets, fasole, bohne, böna, judia, fagiuolo, and feijão-- losing sight of the fact that all, all came from South America.)

Neither did Daniel eat lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus)...and for the same reason. These began life in Central America, reached Peru many thousands of years ago, and eventually were named after Peru’s capital.

Not soy beans (Glycine max). They were lurking in the wilds of Mongolia, cultivated there for over 5000 years. Didn’t make it west until the 17th century.

And forget black-eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata) or azukis (Phaseolus angularis)--they were both minding their own business in China too.

Nope, it was 600 BCE, and people were still pretty much eating whatever happened to grow where they lived. But Babylon was a pretty sophisticated place, especially with Nebuchadnezzar traveling around making war on everyone. So Daniel had an usually wide choice. Likely he could have called for a 4-bean soup: lentils (Lens esculenta), fava beans (Vicia faba), peas (Pisum sativum), and chickpeas (Cicer arietinum)--all of which were cultivated in the ancient western world.

You know Esau and how he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage? That was lentils. You know how Pharaoh Rameses II offered the Nile god 11,998 jars of "shelled beans"? Likely favas. Peas go back to Neolithic farming villages (7500 BCE) in the Near East. And chickpeas? According to Sheik Nefzawi, in The Perfumed Garden, "Abu el-Heidja has deflowered in one night/Once eighty virgins, and he did not eat or drink between,/Because he surfeited himself with chickpeas,/And had drunk camel's milk with honey mixed."


THE GOOD: It’s true. Beans are awfully good for you. As plants, they suck nitrogen out of the air, which makes them incredibly protein rich. They are high in soluble fiber, which helps control blood cholesterol; they're low in calories and fat; and they're good for diabetics, because their balance of complex carbohydrates and proteins provides a steady source of glucose. Recent studies indicate they’ve got a chemical that actually keeps fat globules from attaching on the insides of veins and arteries. Also--great source of starch, B-complex vitamins, iron, potassium, and zinc.

That said, beans are NOT the perfect sustaining food that Daniel thought. Their protein is incomplete. To make his face fat and fair, Daniel needed beans PLUS a little bread, or rice, or pasta, or milk, or cheese, fish or meat. Maybe bread was such a given in those days, the Bible didn’t need to mention it.

But while we’re talking about good--how about Gregor Mendel formulating the basic laws of heredity by experimenting with garden peas? Or the use of black and white beans in voting--enabling the growth of the democratic process from ancient Greece all the way to the Massachusetts Bay colony in the New World? And then there’s the luck thing: finding the bean in an English Twelfth Night cake; eating lentils in Italy...or black eyed peas in the American south...on New Year’s day.

THE BAD: Plutarch and Cicero put it nicely in speculating why 6th century BCE Greek mathematician Pythagoras forbade his disciples to eat beans: "because they be windy and do engender impure humours and for that cause provoke bodily lust." Certainly every nation has its own jingle to commemorate the side effect. Here is one from the Netherlands, contributed by friend Wiebe van der Molen: Aan de oever van de Nete/ heb ik erwtensoep gegeten./ Wat mij danig heeft gespeten./ want ik liet heel vieze windjes," or "At the bank of the Nete (small river in Belgium)/ I had pea soup. But I regretted it for days/ because of the consequences."

Which raises the question: why, with all our science, has modern man not been able to take the fart out of beans?

Well, precisely. To answer the question, you have to understand the science of the phenomenon. Beans have complex sugars in them--oligosaccharides--that can't be digested by human digestive enzymes. So these sugars sail untouched through the upper intestine, only to be met in the lower intestine by the local population: lean and hungry bacteria with a sweet tooth. In a sense, it's THEM with the gas. They eat; they give off gas...then it's our problem. Concentrations of these sugars in dried legumes cause the most problems--"common" beans and limas get the prize as the worst and smelliest culprits.

Is there a connection here with the fact that U.S. politicians have been outspoken in their praise of bean soup? U.S. President Ronald Reagan was mad for pea soup (second only to hamburger soup); Jimmy Carter clamored for lentil soup with hot dogs in it; and Gerald Ford adored navy bean soup above all others. Likewise the U.S. Congress made an institution of bean soup in the early 1900s when Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon demanded it be served daily in all 11 Congressional dining rooms--a tradition that has endured for some 100 years. After Senator Hillary Clinton was sworn in, what was she served for lunch? A ceremonial bowl of Senate bean soup. I leave the larger question unanswered, to be discussed in next month’s SoupSong on "Soup and American Politics."

For the record: there are some ways to reduce all that hot air. First, don't undercook--you want the beans as digestible as possible. Second, when you're soaking, keep changing the water. And when you're ready to cook, rinse the beans thoroughly and change the water again. If you’re an extremist, you can even change the water during cooking. Get it? The more complex sugars you dump out with the water, the less the bacteria have to eat. In the case of canned beans, throw out the bean liquid and wash the beans under water with your hands.

THE UGLY: Okay, so beans are cheap, plentiful, good for you, and cause rude side effects. Right away you know they’re going to be associated with the have nots--and sneered at by the haves. And, through history, that’s pretty much been the case--perhaps especially as shown through popular culture.

What were Roman gladiator slaves fed? Bean soup. We know that because we watched Kirk Douglas (as Spartacus) drown his Centurian master Marcellus in a large kettle of it, thus igniting the slave rebellion. We watched Chick Vennera (Joe Mondragon) in The Milagro Beanfield War hold off rich, uncaring developers to protect his beans--and Jerry Lewis chasing one bean with catsup around a dish in The Stooge, when he and Dean Martin were really down on their luck. We watched Sally Field (playing soap opera diva Celeste Talbert, playing her role of the warm and caring Maggie) in tongue-in-cheek Soapdish, doling out bean soup to homeless people in Jamaica after a catastrophic oil spill. And we heard Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in Silence of the Lambs, casually mention that he’d eaten the liver of a census taker "with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."

It is Samim Kocagoz’ short story "Dry Beans," though, that sums up man’s inhumanity to man through the image of beans. A bailiff in modern Turkey notices sheaves missing from the bean harvest and hunts down the starving family that stole them. In the end, he recovers the sheaves from the young man who is desperately trying to feed his wife and three children. But that’s not enough. He approaches the children, who are huddled around a small fire cooking a few of the beans in a blackened gas can. "The bailiff did not touch them. He vented all his fury, all his rage, on the can where the beans were boiling. With a single kick he knocked it down. He stamped on the fire.... Then he walked off with his men, who were carrying the sheaves." We are left with the young man, "gripping the stick and looking after them, his eyes burning with hatred."


Good, bad, or ugly, beans have become the stars of traditional and distinctive soups in nations across the world. Many of these soups include that "extra" bit of protein needed to a perfect nutritional dish--others assume that they’ll be served with bread or other protein rich foods to make up the difference. Nearly all express the abundance and character of their people, no matter where their beans of choice first set down roots. Here’s a sampling, with hyperlinks to recipes already posted on this site.

  • ALGERIA: Jary (chickpeas, bulgur, lemon, and herbs).
  • AUSTRIA: Bohnen suppe (white beans, bacon, and vegetables)--see the German version, very similar, at Bohnensuppe.
  • BASQUE: Garbure (white or lima beans and goose confit) and Hemingway soup (white beans, fresh green beans, peas, and cured ham).
  • BRAZIL: Feijoada (black beans with fresh and preserved meats and rice).
  • BURMA: Penilay Hincho (thin red lentil soup, served at room temperature and used as a beverage throughout the meal).
  • CANADA: Soupe aux pois canadienne/Canadian pea soup.
  • CHINA: Swan la tong, or hot and sour soup (bean curd with pork, mushrooms, and chili peppers).
  • CUBA: Sopa de frijoles negros (black beans, lemon, chopped eggs, and chilis).
  • CZECH REPUBLIC: Hrstková polévka (Peas, lentils, white beans and onions fried in lard).
  • DENMARK: Gule Arter (yellow pea soup)--a favorite of danseur Erik Bruhn.
  • EGYPT: Ful Naved (fava bean soup).
  • ENGLAND: Brown Windsor Soup (fava beans with beef and madeira).
  • ETHIOPIA: Yeadengware shorba (red kidney beans and pasta) and Yemisir Shorba (lentils, ginger, and garlic).
  • FRANCE: Garbure (see Basque) and Soupe au pistou (white beans and vegetables with an intense basil sauce).
  • GEORGIA: Lobiani (red beans, walnuts, and vinegar).
  • GERMANY: Bohnensuppe (white beans, bacon, green beans, root vegetables).
  • GHANA: Nkatenkwan (peanuts with chicken and tomatoes).
  • GREECE: Fassolátha (white beans, spinach, herbs, and vinegar).
  • GUATEMALA: Sopa caldosa de frijol blanco (white beans, tomato, and mint).
  • HUNGARY: Palóc soup (green beans, lamb, caraway, bay, and sour cream ).
  • INDIA: Kheera dal Shorva (Mung beans, cucumber, lemon, cilantro, and cumin).
  • ITALY: Pasta e fagiole (beans and pasta); Tuscan bean soup (white beans, broccoli, proscuitto ham, balsamico, and parmesan cheese); and Zuppa di ceci (chickpeas, tomatoes, and rosemary). Minestrone, of course, is the favorite of Sophia Loren and Al Capone (white beans and vegetables).
  • IRAN: Ab-gousht-e-buz bash (kidney beans or blackeyed peas).
  • JAPAN: Miso-shiru (fermented soybean paste) and Kaminan-jiru or Thunder soup (miso with bean curd).
  • JORDAN: Shawrbat hummus wa ful (chickpeas and favas).
  • KOREA: Dubu dae chang chigae (Bean curd soup with brown sauce) and Kong namul kuk (yellow bean sprout soup, good for recovering from the flu and a standby in Korean army barracks).
  • LEBANON: Shorbah Makhlootah (lentil, chickpea, and white bean soup with cinnamon and pepper).
  • MEXICO: Tarascan bean soup (red kidney beans, tomatoes, and chiles, adapted in honor of Grover and posted).
  • MOROCCO: Harira (beans and lentils with lemon and egg) and Chorba bil hamus (chickpeas, lamb, chicken, lemon, and saffron). Joe DiMaggio was a great lover of chickpea and chicken soup.
  • NETHERLANDS: Ertwoensoep or snert (green peas, hams and sausages, potatoes, and nutmeg).
  • NICARAGUA: Sopa de frijolas (red beans, pork rinds, red pepper, and eggs).
  • POLAND: Barszcz fasolkq (brown beans and sour beets with dill and sour cream).
  • ROMANIA: Supa de fasole uscata (white beans).
  • SAUDI ARABIA: Shorbat Bazeela (lentils, zucchini, lemon, and cumin).
  • SPAIN: Caldo gallego (white beans and cabbage).
  • SYRIA: Shorabit Addas (red lentils, lamb, and seasonings).
  • TRINIDAD: Sopa de frijoles negros (black beans, corned beef, and hot pepper wine).
  • TURKEY: Ezo Gelin Corbasi (red lentils, rice, mint, and hot peppers).
  • UNITED STATES: U.S. Senate Bean soup (white beans and hambone); Hawaiian "Portagee" bean soup (red beans and Portuguese sausage); and Old South peanut soup (peanuts, celery, and cream).
  • ZIMBABWE: Huku ne dovi (peanuts, chicken, sweet potatoes, and okra).
Oh, and one last thing: what’s the hardest part of making bean soup? Of course...remembering to throw the beans in water to soak overnight. But that’s why man invented canned beans....

Best regards, Pat Solley

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NEXT MONTH: AMERICAN POLITICS...AND SOUP, PART I: THE PRESIDENCY Other business: you may unsubscribe by directly e-mailing Pat Solley at psolley@capu.net. And please note: Thanks to the continuing wizardry of Grover, this newsletter subscription list has been secured this month and for the future from any unwelcome attachments, piggybacks, viruses, or other webspace junk.

Many thanks to all who, over the past couple years, contributed information and recipes that made this SoupSong possible--this includes Wiebe van der Molen, Jim Tanner-Uicker (also for the help diagnosing the ha ha piggyback), Maureen Grenke, Shelly Belzer, Sanyi Fenyvesi, Susan Eggert, Reiko Callner, Jerry Newman, and Grover Sanschagrin.

And if you’re inspired to make some bean soups and don’t feel like making your own stock, I highly recommend using Redibase, a professional soup base for the home cook (www.redibase.com).