• Bean Nation: The American Experience

    The beans that Columbus discovered in the New World have traveled the globe now, but they remain part of America's national identity. Long before European settlers arrived at Jamestown, Native Americans were cooking dry beans. In fact, beans, squash and corn provided such good sustenance that the natives were generally healthier than the early immigrants. 

    The Indians introduced the settlers to the combination of dry beans and corn that today we call succotash. Some historians even speculate that succotash appeared at the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving. Although recipes abound, many New Englanders would argue that an authentic succotash requires cranberry beans. The Yankee method calls for cooking the cranberry beans with bacon and onion until tender, then stirring in fresh corn kernels and thick heavy cream. 

    The growing locavore movement reminds us to celebrate these regional traditions, some of them centuries old. You can update them with a more contemporary presentation, or leave them looking more homespun. A quick refresher course on some dry-bean classics from coast to coast:
    New England: Boston Baked Beans with Brown Bread
    Evan Jones, the food historian, suggests that the technique for sweetening beans probably derives from the Indians, who added maple sugar to beans cooked in pots buried in coals. 

    Update it: Bake the beans in individual terra cotta pots in a wood-burning oven. Flavor with applewood-smoked bacon or pork from an heirloom breed. 

    New Orleans: Red Beans and Rice
    As the main port on the Gulf of Mexico in colonial times, New Orleans welcomed chilies and warm spices from the Caribbean and Latin America. These seasonings found their way into the local pots, especially Monday's red beans, traditionally flavored with the bone from the Sunday ham. Even today, the Monday lunch special in old-time New Orleans restaurants is almost certain to be red beans and rice. 

    Update it: Accompany with grilled andouille sausage or a locally made sausage. 

    Southwest: Cowboy Beans
    What's a chuck-wagon supper without a cast-iron pot of pinto beans? No respectable cowboy cook would sign on for a cattle drive without first stockpiling the dry beans. Flavorings included green peppers, onion, garlic and bacon, and molasses if at hand. 

    Update it: Pair with a charcoal-grilled steak with chipotle butter and a local microbrew