Death by beans

My math bro Pythagoras. Maybe.

Doing research for this post reminded me of why I have trouble with history.

I dunno if you’ve looked at my ‘About Me’ blurb, but I’m a huge math nerd. I’m a very concrete thinker, and love the idea of there being a right and a wrong answer to a question (admittedly, this isn’t always true in math), but history just doesn’t hold such simple answers.

Take Pythagoras, for example. What do you know about him? He was Greek. Verifiable. He was a philosopher. Probably. He was the first to call himself a philosopher. Debated. He founded a school of thought, Pythagoreanism. Definitely. He discovered the relation between the sides of a triangle literally called Pythagoras’ theorem. This is debated. The actual concrete math theorem from which I learned of Pythagoras’ very existence is not even definitively related to him! According to Wikipedia, “[s]ome accounts mention that the philosophy associated with Pythagoras was related to mathematics and that numbers were important, but it is debated to what extent, if at all, he actually contributed to mathematics or natural philosophy.”

So this philosopher and mathematician may have not even had a hand in either of those disciplines.

Frustrating stuff. So much for math being concrete and undebatable!

So, moving on from that author-shaking revelation, let’s look at how Pythagoras died. Or may have died.

The story (or, one story) goes (according to Frederick J. Simoons’ Plants of Life, Plants of Death) that Pythagoras and some of his followers were gathered in a meeting place when somebody set fire to the building .  In his book Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, Charles H. Kahn points out that there are reports that “the political role of the Pythagorean society . . . resulted in violence against the Pythagoreans,” and that this fire was one such act of political violence. Those who managed to escape the fire fled from the enemies who had set the fire. Pythagoras was on the brink of escape when he was chased to the edge of a bean field. Instead of continuing on and making good on his escape, he refused to tread on the beans and was captured and subsequently killed.

File:Do Not Eat Beans.jpg
Pythagoras does not want the beans.
Before we go ahead and dig into the meat (beans?) of this post, let me be clear that this is only one version of this tale. According to the same source, there exist versions where Pythagoras escapes successfully (we can only guess that it was because of the absence of that pesky bean field) as well as version where he was not present for the fire in the first place.

However, as with any myth (and with the lack of hard verifiable facts and the abundance of exaggerated and fanciful stories about Pythagoras, his history may as well be myth), there are grains of truth and Pythagoras’ (and his followers’) veneration of the humble bean is something that repeats itself over and over enough to warrant some investigation.

Let’s look at some of the proposed possibilities first. As this 1888 article by H.L Sumner points out, beans were used in ancient Greece as a means of casting your vote in an election. The author argues that Pythagoras teaching his followers to “Abstain from beans” was an allegorical way of him teaching them to abstain from politics. The author also claims that Pythagoras did, in fact, eat beans, but has no citations to back this claim up. I find this possible explanation interesting, especially considering that the reason fires were being set to Pythagorean meeting places was a political one. If this was truly what Pythagoras was trying to preach, to abstain from politics, he and his followers don’t seem to have practiced it very well!

Another possible reason behind the bean restriction is covered in a Philosophy Now article titled The Death of Pythagoras, written by Bruce Pennington. The author hypothesizes that Pythagoras and his followers believed that all people should strive for peace, harmony, and tranquility. However, most of us learn pretty quickly that eating too many beans can cause frequent interruptions to tranquility later. Another flatulence-related theory is put down by an article on Classical Wisdom Weekly titled The Cult of Pythagoras. It is claimed here that Pythagoras believed that humans lost a part of their soul whenever they passed gas. There is no citation for this claim, and even the author admits it’s anecdotal. As fun as it is to imagine a philosophical food ban based on an (alleged) philosopher’s distaste for gas being passed in his presence, it does not explain why Pythagoras refused to tread on still-growing, as yet unconsumed, bean plants.

A more interesting (to me, at least) theory is that when Pythagoras traveled to study in Egypt (an event that may or may not have even actually occurred, thanks history) he picked up the Egyptian veneration of beans as a symbol of death. An Atlas Obscura article bye Anne Ewbank titled Why Beans Were an Ancient Emblem of Death covers this briefly. Ewbank also points out that Ken Albala writes (in the book I’m so happily waiting for!) that “[w]hen the word bean is used in European texts prior to 1492, it is almost always the fava.” This is important to note, considering there is a genetic metabolic disease called favism that is particularly common in the Mediterranean and that can cause red blood cell breakdown upon contact with fava beans. In her article, Ewbank points out that not only does eating fava beans cause such a reaction, but merely inhaling the pollen from the plant’s flowers can cause a person to suffer the effects.

This is fascinating because it not only explains the ban on eating the beans, but also explains Pythagoras’ hesitance to walk through a field of growing beans!

There are a few other ideas, from many sources, of what was caused Pythagoras to hold beans in such high regard including that they are too phallic-looking, they look too much like a fetus — meaning they are a possible vessel into which a human soul might be reborn — and that they produce blood.

This last one is, again, very interesting if you’ve read or watched anything about the impossible burger and how it’s made. It turns out that the roots of legumes, including beans, turn pink or red when they have begun fixating nitrogen. This is caused by leghemoglobin in the roots, a protein very similar to the hemoglobin that gives our blood its red color and transports oxygen through our bodies.

I thought that was a pretty cool connection between an ancient Greek maybe-philosopher-and-mathematician and a contemporary maybe-almost-meat-food!

To finish off, let’s remember from the last post that the word bean could originally refer to the pod-borne seed of any plant. If he saw seeds as the fetuses of the plant world, that might also explain his reluctance to injure them.  Don’t eat babies, people!

Just beans.

To bean or not to bean!

The black beans in my pantry with the pressure canner, their eventual fate, looming above them.

Please excuse me, low-hanging puns are a weakness of mine.

While I wait for the bean book to get to my local library, let’s talk about the origin of beans. Or, rather, of ‘bean’. The word itself.

It turns out that the etymology (not entomology, which is the study of bugs, like my brain insists is correct here) of the word bean is pretty uninteresting. I’m sorry. But we can still give it a look!

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a very neat resource that I hope to get to use a lot in the future, the English word ‘bean’ comes from the Proto-Germanic ‘bauno’, which is also the source of the words for ‘bean’ in Old Norse, Middle Dutch, Dutch, Old High German, and German. If you’re curious, those words are ‘baun’, ‘bone’, ‘boon’, ‘bona’, and ‘bohne’, respectively.

The only thing I found super interesting was the fact that the word ‘bean’ is apparently related to the Latin word ‘faba’. This is interesting because the very first strain of bean that was cultivated by humans was the fava bean, according to Wikipedia (I promise I will get better at finding good sources!). We’ll talk more about fava beans when I cover my boy Pythagoras and his prohibition against eating beans.

Another interesting to note, again from Wikipedia (my high school history teacher would be so disappointed in me) is that, originally, the word for ‘bean’ was not used only for what we think of as beans today. Rather, it was used to describe the pod-borne seed of any plant.

Well, that’s today’s bite of food (word) history! See you next time, and don’t forget to Eat Your History!


In search of beans

When you've got beans in your pantry it can be bean time anytime!
My latest (and first) piece of chalkboard art

I just got back from biking to the library. Biking is a hobby I recently picked up in the interest of saving more money and growing my ‘stash (thanks Mr. Money Mustache for kicking my butt into gear on this), but libraries have been something I’ve loved since I was an elementary school student. I made the trip today to try and locate a particular book: Ken Albala’s Beans: A History. Now before you start wondering if this is just a fan blog for Professor Albala (he actually has his own blog, I discovered the existence of this and his Beans book yesterday), I promise I will pull from many other sources, not just his works. It’s just that he was my introduction to this scintillating intersection of food nerdistry and history, and I already know he can present it in a way that my history-lesson-averse brain can handle!

Anyways, I think I’ve settled on the first food I want to explore on this blog. In case you can’t tell from my chasing after this book (my librarian very helpfully requested an inter-library loan for me, and it should be here within a month!), the first food I’m going to be looking into is beans!

I love beans.

Sometimes they don’t love me back, but that doesn’t stop me from indulging. We threw some chickpeas in our dinner on a whim on Saturday. Actually I’m not sure chickpeas are a bean. Let me check…

Yes, they are a bean! Because the are garbanzo beans and I am a silly and forgot they were the same thing.

Beans are what encouraged me to teach myself canning — I’m a big fan of beans, but not of all the salt they usually get packed with*! In fact, the fancy chalkboard drawing (and un-fancy lettering, I’ll have to work on that) above came about the last time my husband and I had a bean canning session.

I also grew some beans in my garden this year, though I need to be a much more disciplined gardener if I want to get the kind of harvest that will give me enough to can. The flowers are gorgeous though! I wish I had pictures of the monsters those cute little purple blooms turned into. The site where I bought the seeds will have to do.

But apart from how to can them and how to grow (not enough) of them, what do I know about beans?

I know humans have been eating them for a long, long time. They feature in Indian, Mexican, Italian, and English cuisine, not to mention in good ‘ol American barbecue. I know there are ‘old world’ and ‘new world’ beans , but not which beans belong to which group (thank you Professor Albala, and I’m sorry for forgetting). But where were they used first? How were they used? Heck, I don’t even have a complete picture of how they’re used now! 

I also know beans were used to vote, but I don’t know to what extent. I know Pythagoras (my math bro!) refused to eat beans but I don’t think that everybody can agree why (another tidbit I learned from Professor Albala’s Great Courses lectures). So that sounds like a fun story to dig into, too!

While I wait for the book focusing on the matter of Beans, I hope to do a little preliminary digging and to start answering some of these questions and hopefully think of some more.

Oh! And maybe I’ll put up a recipe for the dish we added chickpeas (garbanzo beans!) to, it turned out really tasty!

* If you’re looking to find some no-sodium beans, but don’t want to run the risk of this being your kitchen, I highly recommend Eden brand beans!

In the beginning…

There was a blog post.

My first blog post, in fact.

Welcome to what I hope will be a thrilling journey through time. We’ll walk together through human history, looking at how food has shaped and been shaped by humans as we spread, explored, and traded with each other. I hope the path will be as exciting for you as it is for me!

I got the itch to write a blog like this after listening to Ken Albala’s lecture series on food history through The Great Courses on –several times, to be honest! He’s an incredible lecturer and the subject matter he covers fascinates me, but it left me wanting more. So I decided I would see if I could dig deeper into some of the things I learned, maybe look at Albala’s sources myself.

I’m no food historian, nor any type of historian. Far from it. To tell the truth, I’ve always had trouble connecting with history when people have tried teaching it to me. This changed when I looked at history through the lens of food. I’d never thought about it deeply before, but food connects everything. Eating food is something we all do. Every human from the dawn of time (if you’ll excuse the terrible cliché) has eaten food. It connects every single one of us. So I want to look more closely at it. I want to see how food has affected our history and how history has affected our food. I hope you will join me.

So there’s the mission statement!

I’ve never done anything like this before, so please bear with me while I figure out the best way to research and share the histories of the foods we all know and (mostly — here’s looking at you, broccoli) love. It will be fun! It will be exciting! We’ll get to learn some new stuff while we read about food, eat food, cook food, and maybe even grow some food of our own!

So, everybody, get ready to Eat Your History!

— Evelyn