A Cultural History of Beans

Andrea e Bruno/ iStock / Getty Images Plus
Andrea e Bruno/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

Beans are not just for nourishment, no sir. There is a long history of beans in our folklore. In choosing a specific area of discussion for this post on beans, the first thing my artsy daughter spouted out was, “Beans, beans the musical fruit the more you eat, the more you…”, and, well, you know where this is going.


It is true, though, that the high amount of oligosaccharides along with bacteria in the gut produce, in some cases, large amounts of carbon dioxide and hydrogen, which we know as flatulence. Aside from nursery rhyme fame, there are several examples of this tune made famous on television and in the movies, most notably by Bart Simpson in not one, but two episodes of “The Simpsons.”

Also, who can forget the tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk?” Once upon a time a young boy works tirelessly for his poor mother on their family plot of dirt, and one day his mother asks Jack to sell the cow. Instead, he trades it for some beans an old witch said were magic. He returns home where his mother, in anger at Jack for doing this, carelessly throws the beans in the dirt. The next day a giant bean stalk appears, begging to be climbed. There, Jack sees and takes a golden goose — knowing it will solve all their family problems. This angers the resident giant, who chases him around the heavens until our hero Jack finally gets away and all is well.

There are many variations to this tale and even a reference in the Book of Jonah, where it is not beans, but a gourd that grows so tall that it becomes a metaphor for the connection between heaven and earth. I interpret this all to mean that beans or, for that matter, any plant that helps to sustain life was so important it was to be remembered, and that people wrote songs and stories about it to teach the next generation. Oral history was the internet of its day, and the best way to remember something is to tell a tale or sing it in a tune.

Lastly, beans were historically valuable as a commodity and used in business. Counting is necessary in commerce and beans were often traded or used as a source of money. When things were measured on scales, bags of beans were used as counter weight. In China and other parts of Asia, ancient adding machines — also known as abacuses — used beans or stones to calculate cost as a tool for business and trade. And today many people still prefer an abacus to a calculator.

In the Aztec world, before being conquered by the Spaniards, the cacao bean was used as a source of money. Back then, 15 cacao beans would buy you one rabbit or you could purchase five green chilies for one cacao bean. The marketplace was huge and on busy market days, history claims that at the height of the culture, 60,000 people would gather there. So next time you travel to Mexico City, where Tenochtitlan, known as the capital of the Aztec world is buried under the city, consider how another culture used its beans.

Robin Rood on Google
Robin Rood
Robin Rood, RD, LD, MEd, MA, writes about nutrition as a local expert for Examiner.com in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and blogs at NutritionAndSpirituality.blogspot.com.