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Beans: A History

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Whether refried, baked, falafelled, or complementing a nice Chianti, the humble bean has long been a part of gourmet and everyday food culture around the globe. As Ken Albala shows, though, over its history the bean has enjoyed more controversy than its current ubiquity lets on. From the bean's status as seat of the soul (at least, that's what Pythagoras thought) to seed o Whether refried, baked, falafelled, or complementing a nice Chianti, the humble bean has long been a part of gourmet and everyday food culture around the globe. As Ken Albala shows, though, over its history the bean has enjoyed more controversy than its current ubiquity lets on. From the bean's status as seat of the soul (at least, that's what Pythagoras thought) to seed of sin (or so said St. Jerome, who forbade nuns to eat beans because they "tickle the genitals"), Beans is a ripping tale of a truly magical fruit.


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Whether refried, baked, falafelled, or complementing a nice Chianti, the humble bean has long been a part of gourmet and everyday food culture around the globe. As Ken Albala shows, though, over its history the bean has enjoyed more controversy than its current ubiquity lets on. From the bean's status as seat of the soul (at least, that's what Pythagoras thought) to seed o Whether refried, baked, falafelled, or complementing a nice Chianti, the humble bean has long been a part of gourmet and everyday food culture around the globe. As Ken Albala shows, though, over its history the bean has enjoyed more controversy than its current ubiquity lets on. From the bean's status as seat of the soul (at least, that's what Pythagoras thought) to seed of sin (or so said St. Jerome, who forbade nuns to eat beans because they "tickle the genitals"), Beans is a ripping tale of a truly magical fruit.

30 review for Beans: A History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Happyreader

    Just nominated for an IACP award in the food reference category. Plus I like beans.

  2. 4 out of 5

    John

    Gets carried away in a few places, but those were skimmable; never got really "dry" as such. If you think the book might be interesting, you'd probably like it. Gets carried away in a few places, but those were skimmable; never got really "dry" as such. If you think the book might be interesting, you'd probably like it.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    I didn't get to the end of the book but it was an fascinating read as far as I got, which was the point where he was writing about the New World legumes, Phaseolus sp., when I felt that I'd read enough. I studied beans in my early academic life and have always found them interesting, the genetic diversity and the nutritional aspect for humans. I have never been particularly fond of dry peas but this book made pea soup sound absolutely mouth watering. The book covers both the usual and the unusual I didn't get to the end of the book but it was an fascinating read as far as I got, which was the point where he was writing about the New World legumes, Phaseolus sp., when I felt that I'd read enough. I studied beans in my early academic life and have always found them interesting, the genetic diversity and the nutritional aspect for humans. I have never been particularly fond of dry peas but this book made pea soup sound absolutely mouth watering. The book covers both the usual and the unusual legumes that are eaten by humans. I learned that fenugreek is a legume, interesting. I would like to read other books by the author. He gave a good level of depth to the subject.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Pancha

    Albala explores the political, cultural, and linguistic history of our friend the bean. Each chapter focuses on a different type of bean, from the lentil (thought to be the first legume cultivated) to the soy bean (a much later edition to our tables, only having been cultivated a few thousand years ago), including a chapter on poison beans and cryptobeans. Interspersed with the history are quotes from medical texts, novels, songs, memoirs, travelogues, poems, and of course cookbooks. There are e Albala explores the political, cultural, and linguistic history of our friend the bean. Each chapter focuses on a different type of bean, from the lentil (thought to be the first legume cultivated) to the soy bean (a much later edition to our tables, only having been cultivated a few thousand years ago), including a chapter on poison beans and cryptobeans. Interspersed with the history are quotes from medical texts, novels, songs, memoirs, travelogues, poems, and of course cookbooks. There are even recipes included, from Roman feasts to a modern bean fudge.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mark Hiser

    Everything you wanted--or did not want--to know about the history of the use of beans!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Chana Masaledar

    Beans have represented many different things over the centuries: daily staple for the whole society, particularly in India; reliable food for the poor; gassy embarrassment for the upwardly-mobile; symbol of primordial hardihood for the ancient Romans. In this book, Albala does a fine job investigating the social and botanical history of the bean family, including many of its lesser-known members. I recommend this book to all foodies, and to anyone who might be amused to know that Fabio, the Ital Beans have represented many different things over the centuries: daily staple for the whole society, particularly in India; reliable food for the poor; gassy embarrassment for the upwardly-mobile; symbol of primordial hardihood for the ancient Romans. In this book, Albala does a fine job investigating the social and botanical history of the bean family, including many of its lesser-known members. I recommend this book to all foodies, and to anyone who might be amused to know that Fabio, the Italian supermodel, has a name that means "bean."

  7. 4 out of 5

    Gabrielle

    One of the perks of volunteering in the high school library, you come across odd books like this one, written by a food historian. He realized that there had not been a thorough history of the bean and so he wrote one. (Yes, I could almost say that with a straight face.) If you are foodie, it may interest you. It would actually make a good magazine article, as some of the old recipies and writings on beans were a little dry and could be cut out, but overall the info was interesting.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    For the food class, a social history of beans--early domestication as a farmer protein source (and one of the three sisters of American native foods with corn and squash), fava beans and malaria, Pythagoras and beans as the seat of the soul, St. Jerome worried about flatulent nuns to the industrialization of soy.

  9. 4 out of 5

    David Raffin

    This is the finest book I've ever read about the history of beans. It has ancient philosophers, class divisions, and recipes. This is the finest book I've ever read about the history of beans. It has ancient philosophers, class divisions, and recipes.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Gordon Woolley Jr.

    Great book for the history of beans.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Anise

    This is a fascinating account of the human and natural history of pulse crops. One thing that I personally appreciate and think deserves recognition is the author's obvious love for the Latin language - he provides the botanical Latin names for all the plants he discusses, quotes Vergil in the original language, and provides a clever little take-off on the opening lines of the Aeneid in the preface, to boot. The only thing I don't like about the book is the author's habit of not giving measureme This is a fascinating account of the human and natural history of pulse crops. One thing that I personally appreciate and think deserves recognition is the author's obvious love for the Latin language - he provides the botanical Latin names for all the plants he discusses, quotes Vergil in the original language, and provides a clever little take-off on the opening lines of the Aeneid in the preface, to boot. The only thing I don't like about the book is the author's habit of not giving measurements in the recipes provided. His reasons for this are explained in the preface - cooking beans isn't an exact science, and the historical recipe books he used as sources don't specify measurements, either - but I still think that it wouldn't hurt to throw a line to people like me who can't cook without some idea of measurements. This is a very minor quibble, and I can say with certainty that I will come back to this book again.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Anjar Priandoyo

    This is a good book, it is about 11 most important beans in the world. However, from my point of view the most important as Indonesian is soy bean which described very well in Chapter 12 as it can provide food and also fuel. The problem is within my self as I never tried Lentis, Lupine, and almost all 10 beans in the book. The only beans that I encounter maybe only Fava beans, and it is actually used as snack, not as source of protein (food). It is interesting to learn about this plants, however This is a good book, it is about 11 most important beans in the world. However, from my point of view the most important as Indonesian is soy bean which described very well in Chapter 12 as it can provide food and also fuel. The problem is within my self as I never tried Lentis, Lupine, and almost all 10 beans in the book. The only beans that I encounter maybe only Fava beans, and it is actually used as snack, not as source of protein (food). It is interesting to learn about this plants, however its difficult to enjoy all part of the book as I dont have sufficient knowledge about beans. Maybe after I tried lentis and other west/south bean I will understand this book better.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Vishal Katariya

    Enjoyed this book, however it was a bit pedantic at times. However, I knew that going in. Also, if you're going to read a 200+ page book about BEANS, you've got to be prepared for some bean pedantry. When starting the book, I was afraid that it would be too Western-centric, despite the fact that most legume species in the world are not from the West. However, I felt like a number of cultures and histories were covered. Part of it also boils down to what documentation and historical text survives Enjoyed this book, however it was a bit pedantic at times. However, I knew that going in. Also, if you're going to read a 200+ page book about BEANS, you've got to be prepared for some bean pedantry. When starting the book, I was afraid that it would be too Western-centric, despite the fact that most legume species in the world are not from the West. However, I felt like a number of cultures and histories were covered. Part of it also boils down to what documentation and historical text survives. Overall, a nice book if you like/love beans. Lots of fun nuggets and recipes too.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Joni Metcalf-Kemp

    Want to make beans like the Romans? This book was a sleeper, haha, as I did enjoy it! Bit by bit. I put it in the bathroom. It’s honestly a complete history of the bean from ancient to modern including many sources from various world cultures—and recipes to go with the references. Of course, my interests—finding good bean recipes over time and learning plant lore in general— made it easier for me to read and not be put off by brief taxonomic descriptions.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Elze

    Fascinating little details about culinary tradition from around the world and great historical recipes. Though, must say, that after a few hundreds of pages of beans, you do get tired a little by the topic... But this book can be read as a source of inspiration, choosing just one chapter at a time.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Rogue Reader

    Exceptional coverage of the lowly bean, so delicious and so versatile. Funny that Albala was ready for his year of beans to be done by the end of the book. Some recipes and interesting coverage of heritage and unusual varieties.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Karen E Carter

    Well-written and fascinating. Who knew I would enjoy a book about beans so much.

  18. 4 out of 5

    David Szatkowski

    An interesting book on the taxonomy, history, and use in cooking of, well, beans. A great bibliography is also available to those who wish further study.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Lee (Rocky)

    This is pretty much exactly what I expected it to be.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Marc Hutton

    Wasn’t what I was looking for but interesting never the less. Gets to be a little repetitive at times and not as in depth as I wanted at others.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ann

    Interesting! Learnt a lot about beans

  22. 5 out of 5

    Katherine

    It's about beans. There's a lot of them. A whole hill, in fact. It's about beans. There's a lot of them. A whole hill, in fact.

  23. 5 out of 5

    B. Rule

    The subject of this book is really interesting, as so many civilizations have depended on one or more cultivar of bean for cheap and plentiful sustenance. Each chapter of the book ostensibly describes one type of bean, although in practice there are a lot of half-baked odds and ends tossed into the ends of some chapters. The fundamental takeaway from the book is that beans have been looked down upon as food for the poor through most of human history, although they are occasionally elevated to th The subject of this book is really interesting, as so many civilizations have depended on one or more cultivar of bean for cheap and plentiful sustenance. Each chapter of the book ostensibly describes one type of bean, although in practice there are a lot of half-baked odds and ends tossed into the ends of some chapters. The fundamental takeaway from the book is that beans have been looked down upon as food for the poor through most of human history, although they are occasionally elevated to the status of delicacies by the ultra-rich who have no fear that dining on such fare will taint them with associations of poverty. The exception to the rule is Asia, where soy has long been processed beyond all recognition into a variety of condiments and comestibles. The author provides short recipes at certain spots, usually drawn from historical sources but sometimes seemingly concocted by the author himself. The main issue I had with the book is that it felt repetitive in parts, despite the brevity of the text. It felt like the author didn't provide much more depth of analysis than "beans are denigrated as poor food" and therefore quickly ran out of different ways to say this. The sections on non-Western cultures were much better as it felt like the author was more engaged and interested in really exploring how beans shaped the society. The other problem is that attention to detail or accuracy often seemed lacking. At one point, Albala makes reference to the famous scene in Silence of the Lambs on fava beans, but he says that Hannibal Lecter made the comment about a delivery boy. It was a census taker in the book and the movie, and it takes basically no effort to verify that. The lazy fact checking does not inspire confidence. That said, this is a relatively quick read on an important topic. Not the best single topic history or food book, but not the worst either.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Sesana

    I think this may be the first non-Reaktion food history I've read this year. Very enjoyable. It made me hungry for chili, which is good in a book about beans. And I did make chili, and it was good. (Let's not get into whether or not beans belong in chili, strictly speaking. They go in my chili, and that's all that counts to me.) At any rate, it's divided into chapters based on type of bean, which means that some chapters were way longer than others. Probably the best way to do it, though. There I think this may be the first non-Reaktion food history I've read this year. Very enjoyable. It made me hungry for chili, which is good in a book about beans. And I did make chili, and it was good. (Let's not get into whether or not beans belong in chili, strictly speaking. They go in my chili, and that's all that counts to me.) At any rate, it's divided into chapters based on type of bean, which means that some chapters were way longer than others. Probably the best way to do it, though. There are recipes scattered throughout, some of which are historical and presented as written. It's always interesting to read those old recipes. (ETA: Going back through my reviews to organize stuff into shelves. Just remembering this book made me crave chili again.)

  25. 5 out of 5

    Tara Brabazon

    What a fine book. I am always impressed by books that take something small - like beans - and read larger social histories through it. Albala's Beans accomplishes this task, taking 'the poor man's meat' and investigates its global history through the African nations, Mexico and Japan. Recipes - often historic recipes - are included. Most importantly the array of beans, including lentils, are part of this history. Terrific. It is a book that is full of beans, but without the gas. What a fine book. I am always impressed by books that take something small - like beans - and read larger social histories through it. Albala's Beans accomplishes this task, taking 'the poor man's meat' and investigates its global history through the African nations, Mexico and Japan. Recipes - often historic recipes - are included. Most importantly the array of beans, including lentils, are part of this history. Terrific. It is a book that is full of beans, but without the gas.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Chicory Poetry

    I am a foodie & I have done heirloom vegetable research & recovery & reintroduced several crops to Jefferson's Monticello garden that the "experts" could not find. The author had several errors in his book & when I contacted him .. His remarks were ... This was a long time ago & I am working now on so & so ... Gotta get your facts straight !! I am a foodie & I have done heirloom vegetable research & recovery & reintroduced several crops to Jefferson's Monticello garden that the "experts" could not find. The author had several errors in his book & when I contacted him .. His remarks were ... This was a long time ago & I am working now on so & so ... Gotta get your facts straight !!

  27. 4 out of 5

    Dianna

    I made it through a few chapters of this but kept falling asleep. Evidently it's just not meant to be at this stage in my life. This book was a little bit too thorough and dry for my taste but there is no doubt that Mr. Albala is a scholar. Still, I did pick up some interesting info and if I could have kept awake I would have kept reading. I made it through a few chapters of this but kept falling asleep. Evidently it's just not meant to be at this stage in my life. This book was a little bit too thorough and dry for my taste but there is no doubt that Mr. Albala is a scholar. Still, I did pick up some interesting info and if I could have kept awake I would have kept reading.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Nikku

    I eat so many beans that I felt I had to read this book. I did learn some interesting facts and got really hungry for fresh broad beans, split pea soup and hummus. The writing was a bit to informal and repetitive for my tastes so I gave it a 3.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Luke Echo

    A surprisingly detailed survey of the legume; Lentils, Peas, Chickpeas, and both New World and Old World beans. I've always been quite fond of beans and it has piqued my interest in obtaining some of the more unusual varieties. A surprisingly detailed survey of the legume; Lentils, Peas, Chickpeas, and both New World and Old World beans. I've always been quite fond of beans and it has piqued my interest in obtaining some of the more unusual varieties.

  30. 5 out of 5

    waits4thebus

    Casual at times, more like a textbook at others, but interesting nonetheless.

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