Green beans have long been a mainstay on the American dinner plate. “It’s the quintessential side dish,” said Travis Brust, executive chef at the Williamsburg Inn. As a child growing up in New York, he remembers his mother cooking green beans lightly sautéed in plenty of olive oil and garlic.
“When I came to Virginia, I learned the Southern method of cooking beans all day long in salted water with plenty of ham for flavor. Today, we call that overcooking,” Brust said with a smile.
Whether you call them green beans or snap beans or string beans — there are more than 130 varieties — the edible-pod beans are a prized source of vitamins A, C and K. In 2018, the average American consumed more than a pound and a half of the legume. And according to a poll conducted last year for veggietracker.com, green beans are among the favorite vegetables in America, trending with corn, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and onions.
Their popularity isn’t new. They’ve long been a favorite.
“In school, green beans and carrots were used to teach students the basic techniques for cooking vegetables, probably because they were abundant and economical,” Brust recalled.
When he was a boy, Brust tried several times to grow beans — green, purple, white and yellow wax beans — but he was never successful.
“Beans need help,” Brust said. In his home garden today, he has grown haricots verts, the American green bean’s longer and thinner French cousin. “I pinch them at about 2½ inches long when they are still very tender.”
Brust offers a green bean recipe that is simple to prepare and uses readily available ingredients.
Brust and Frank Clark, the master of Historic Foodways, agree: “Beans need help.” And luckily, there are helpers in the Historic Area. Green beans are grown in the Governor’s Palace garden and in the Colonial Garden, across from Bruton Parish Church, which is tended by the historic gardeners.
Research indicates the green bean originated in Peru and moved to Central America and South America with migrating Indian tribes. Spanish explorers from the New World introduced them to Europe in the 16th century and to the rest of the world through trade.
Green beans are low in calories and high in nutrition. In the United States, they are consumed raw, steamed, boiled, baked and fried. They are among the most commonly grown garden vegetables, and they thrive in nearly every section of the country, tolerating all types of soils and producing an abundant crop in about 50 days.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac calls green beans one of the “three sisters” grown together with corn and squash by American Indians when the English began settling in North America. The beans grew up the stalks of corn, working their way through the squash vines that covered the ground, providing a living mulch that shaded the soil, keeping it moist and cool and preventing weeds.
“Beans were not as popular with the English as peas,” Clark said. He noted that early Americans ate some varieties of beans fresh, and stored some types while drying still others.
Although we eat green beans raw today, Clark said they would rarely have been eaten that way in the 18th century. Pickling beans was popular, and the versatile green bean could be cooked as a savory or a sweet accompaniment.
“Many foods were only consumed by a particular class in colonial times, but beans would have been eaten by everyone from poor farmers to the palace gentry,” Clark added.
He shares a savory option he has updated from a recipe found in The Practice of Modern Cookery by George Dalrymple, published in the late 18th century.