Etymology of Beans, Part Two

Homemade hamburger buns! First attempt. Next one will have more sesame seeds!

Time to go back down the etymology rabbit hole, as promised!

I admittedly did not dig deep enough last time, but I hope to rectify that with some guidance from Ken Albala’s example.

Also, sorry for the wait! I threw the husband a raucous birthday barbecue last weekend and then came down with some nasty bug as a reward for all my hard work. Unfortunately, no beans were involved in the barbecue (though I do now wonder what smoked beans would taste like, or how one would even achieve such a dish), but there were plenty of other tasty foods that I’ll hopefully get to show off in pictures over the next few posts!

Ok, back on topic.

Last we spoke, I resolved to do a deeper dive of bean etymology, starting with looking into the words that Ken Albala had written of in his book. Let’s start with legume. First off, the English word legume can mean the fruit or seed of leguminous plants (peas or beans), the pod containing the fruit or seed of leguminous plants, or the plants themselves. The English word legume comes from the French word légume (from the earlier legun), which has now (since around 1827, it seems) come to mean any cooking vegetable. The French word, in turn, comes from the Latin word legumen, meaning the same as the English legume. It is also speculated that the Latin legumen is connected to the Latin legere, which means to gather. As Albala points out in his book, it’s not a reach to think that the word ultimately began as a descriptor of how the beans were obtained. Despite their later large role in agriculture, they began as an easy-to-gather food for peoples who relied on being able to hunt and gather all they ate.

Not only was that a lot more informative than my previous attempt at etymological research, but it was actually way more fun, too. Watching the historical transformation of a food word through time is nearly as fun as watching the transformation of the food itself!

Next, let’s look at pulse. I started with legume because it’s (I think) a much more commonly used word that people reading are more likely to have encounter. I personally had not seen the word pulse (or at least don’t remember having seen it) used as a synonym for legume until reading Albala’s book. It apparently has a very narrow definition in this context: “Any annual legume yielding from 1 to 12 grains or seeds of variable size, shape and colour within a pod, and used as food for humans or animals.”

It also has a longer history as a word, possibly stretching back to the Proto-Indo-European language, the hypothetical (thanks, history!) common ancestor of all Indo-European languages.

It seems that the origin of the word pulse is intimately linked with the use of beans in porridge. The English word pulse comes from the Latin puls, for meal or porridge, which is probably from the Ancient Greek póltos, also for porridge (specifically, porridge made from flour), which, in turn, is from a Proto-Indo-European word pel, for dust or flour.

So this word for beans that I’d never encountered before not only describes a common usage of beans, but the history of the word itself is a testament to how long humans have been using beans in that way. This makes sense, considering that we have evidence of people cooking beans over 10,000 years ago.

Probably not what the Ancient Greeks meant, but I can kind of see the bean shape…
Author:Franklin Vera Pacheco / Franklin.vp at en.wikipedia

Finally, let’s take a look at the word phaseolus. Since 1753, Phaseolus has been used as the name of the genus of the Fabaceae (legume) family containing New World beans. Before then, it was used as a name for the black-eyed pea, and Old World bean. The word is borrowed from the Latin phaselusmeaning a bean with an edible pod. It could also mean a light boat, similar to a canoe, that is similar in shape to a bean pod.

So! Etymology! A lot more work went into the research this time, but I think the results are also a lot more interesting!

Don’t be discouraged!

Aren’t they beautiful? I promise they’re related. Keep reading!

Good words to live by, but hard.

I’ve gotten through the first three chapters of Ken Albala’s book on beans, and for as lovely as the journey has been so far it’s also been pretty intimidating. Albala is a fantastic researcher, storyteller, and author, and it’s hard to feel like I can really add anything to the conversation. It’s so tempting to just throw in the towel and let better minds than mine continue their journeys through food history while I hang back and watch. I’m a newbie to this field (one without a relevant degree, to boot!), and I’m way eclipsed by those I’m learning from.

Take, for example, how badly Albala schools me concerning etymology. At first, he finds pretty much the same things I do. Bean in English is similar to the word for bean in many different languages (also, it seems like italics are the preferred method of setting a word apart when etymology-izing it, not single quotes as I’d used). None particularly interesting or particularly different from the word ‘bean’ itself. But then he looks at the words legume and pulse (which, it turns out, is an old synonym for legume that comes from the Roman word for a dish of cooked bean meal, puls). And the word Phaseolus, the term referring to New World beans. I’ll do an etymology part two to cover the cool stuff he covered and see if I can’t get any deeper myself, too.

So that was fascinating, illuminating, and…discouraging.

But I learned something from it — more than what Albala was teaching. Looking at just the word I’m interested in is not enough. I have to look around it, too. I have to learn to think less shallowly about human language. And that’s a good lesson!

I also learned that one of my favorite Monty Python sketches has another layer to it that I never knew! You see, lupines (one of my favorite flowers, and pictured above) are a bean! I can’t believe it. It’s so cool. And part of the joke is that the character in the sketch that’s stealing lupines to feed the poor doesn’t understand what part of the plant is eaten (the seeds). It’s silly but I am really glad to know this new information.

I also learned that lentils are an Old World bean. Like, really really Old World. As in, the earliest remains of cooked lentils are from 11 thousand BCE (in Greece, if you’re wondering). Lupines are both Old and New World, which turns out to be uncommon.

I’ve learned a lot from this book and this blog already. Most importantly, though, I think I’ve learned I don’t have to be the best. I don’t even have to be good. I just have to be better. Not better than anybody else, but better than myself. I just have to keep learning, keep trying, and keep growing. And I win!

The future of beans

It’s arrived!

I can’t pretend to know where beans will go or what they will do in the world, but I do know where they’ll be heading on this blog!

I got to bicycle to my local library after work today (oh my it was so hot outside, but so worth it!) because the book I’ve been waiting to come in had arrived! Well, actually, it had arrived yesterday, but the library is closed on Sunday so I don’t know why they emailed me to let me know they had it. Such a tease!

But it’s here now, in my hands! I’m sure I’m going to learn more than I ever thought there was to know about beans, but I’m also sure I’m going to love every minute of it. I’ve never actually read  any of Ken Albala’s professional works before, only listened to him through the Great Courses lectures he did (and yes, I’m going to keep linking that until you listen to it, too!), so I’m really excited to read this book.

I don’t know what I’ll read in there, but it will almost certainly give me plenty of food for thought (har har!) regarding beans and what I want to write about them. I already have a few ideas of my own, though! I want to look deeper into the importance of beans for lent and other religious observances, and I also want to look at the differences between Old World and New World bean varieties and which varieties are which.

I know at least one, already! Fava beans are Old World. Cause how much more Old World can you get than Ancient Greece!

Well, time to dig in!

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