Ornamental Separator

Snapping It Up

Beans were on most everybody’s table in the 18th century

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.

Moroccan Green Bean and Chicken Stew

Williamsburg Inn

6-8 servings

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • cup onions, chopped
  • large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1½ teaspoons ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 8 cups chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
  • whole chicken, cut in half with skin removed
  • cups sweet potatoes, diced
  • cups red bell peppers, diced
  • cups green beans, fresh or frozen (thawed), cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 15-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed
  • 1¼ teaspoons kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
  • harissa, to taste
  1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 2 to 3 minutes.
  2. Add the cumin, cinnamon and cayenne; cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
  3. Add the broth and chicken. Cover and increase heat to high, bringing the liquid to a simmer.
  4. Uncover and cook, turning the chicken occasionally, for 20 to 22 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the inner thigh area near the breast but not touching bone registers 165 degrees.
  5. Transfer the chicken to a clean cutting board. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones and shred.
  6. While processing the chicken, add the sweet potatoes, bell peppers and green beans to the pot; return to a simmer. Cook until the vegetables are tender, 4 to 10 minutes.
  7. Stir in the shredded chicken, chickpeas, salt and pepper, and cook until heated through.
  8. Remove from heat.

For a zesty add-on: Harissa is a spicy Tunisian chili paste commonly used in North African cooking. It is available in the international section of most large grocery stores, as well as in specialty food stores and online. A little goes a long way. Add only a tiny bit at a time.

Green Kidney Beans with Onions

Modern Version (Adapted with Green Beans)

4 servings

  • ½ pound green beans
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • medium onion, sliced
  • 12 ounces beef broth
  • tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • tablespoon vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Trim the green beans and blanch them for 6 minutes. Remove from heat and drain.
  2. Melt the butter and stir in the flour. Cook until mixture becomes a light-brown color.
  3. Add the onions and cook until they become soft and tan in color.
  4. Add the beef broth and the mustard and cook until the sauce begins to thicken, about 5 minutes.
  5. Add the beans, vinegar and salt and pepper. Cook another 5 minutes or until beans are heated through.

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