We all remember the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. A boy (named Jack) lives with his widowed mother (name not provided) and a dairy cow (name not provided either) who is the family's only source of income. When the cow stops giving milk, Jack's mother instructs him to take the cow to market to be sold. On the way, Jack meets a creepy old man who offers him some magic beans in exchange for the cow. Jack, who seems far too credulous a person to be allowed to be conducting the family's financial affairs, accepts the beans-for-cow trade. (Exeunt creepy old man and frightened cow.)
When Jack returns home, mom goes ballistic, tosses the beans on the ground in disgust, and sends him to bed without supper. (A clear case of transference on the mother's part, who must feel terrible for letting her child out into the world to be hoodwinked.)
Over night, a giant beanstalk grows from the magic beans, which Jack climbs to find a giant's castle.
Cue "Fee-fi-fo-fum," etc.
Once the giant is asleep, Jack steals a bag of gold coins and escapes down the beanstalk. The versions of the story I've read are vague on or usually omit the mother's reaction to her son's (clearly felonious) actions. Regardless of whatever encouragement or censure Jack receives from mom, he climbs up the beanstalk twice more to steal from the giant, taking a goose that lays golden eggs (useful!) and a harp that plays itself (how much harp music can one actually take?). The giant, understandably pissed about these repeated home invasions, gives chase down the beanstalk. Mom hands Jack an axe, he cuts down the beanstalk, and the giant tumbles to his death. Jack and his mother live happily ever after, perhaps beginning their happily ever after by heading into town for a celebratory steak dinner.
I want to tell you another story about magic beans, except these ones come from Columbia County and tell a tale of a regional food shed, not a giant's bloodshed. Sixty years ago, a fella named Hank Losee grew a variety of bean that was beloved in his community of Ghent. Hank's beans were the star of the town's own garden-to-table baked bean dish, to which many citizens contributed ingredients from their own kitchen gardens. Hank's neighbor Flossy made the best baked beans in town, highlighting his prized crop using her own special recipe.
After Hank's passing, his beans disappeared, and their story, the story of a particular community and a specific place in time, went missing too. That is until Hank's daughter, Peg Lotvin, discovered a small stash of her father's prized heirloom beans in a glass jar at his house and donated them to Hudson Valley Seed Library, an Accord-based organization that preserves and cultivates heirloom seed varieties. "Every seed is a story," says Ken Greene, the founder of Hudson Valley Seed Library. "Growing a seed means growing its story and keeping it alive. Genetic stories, human stories of travel, tragedy, spirit. Some seed stories are tall tales, some are personal stories from recent generations. When you choose and plant a seed, you are answering the question: Which story would I like to grow?"
I met Greene at a dinner celebrating Hank's X-Tra Special Baking Bean at the Village Tea Room in New Paltz in late January, part of a series of cassoulet dinners at restaurants around the region highlighting the heirloom bean last month. It was the culmination of a pilot project between the agricultural-boosting nonprofit Glynwood, and Hudson Valley Chef's Network. In the spring of 2015, 14 pounds of Hank's beans were divided between six regional growers, who planted the crop. In September, Glynwood hosted a community "thresh fest" to harvest Hank's beans using traditional methods at the farms; 100 pounds of beans were harvested and a reserve of beans was returned to Hudson Valley Seed Library for cataloging and retail sale. This month, Glynwood will be organizing a meeting with growers and chefs to decide what heirloom cultivar(s) will be grown for this project in 2016. "When there is appreciation for food grown in this region, it ensures the viability of farming in the region. We are looking for ways to help farms thrive and endure," says Sara Grady, vice president of programs at Glynwood, when asked why her organization cooked up this idea of a pilot grow-out of an heirloom seed. "We wanted to bring together chefs and growers to feature an heirloom cultivar distinct to the Hudson Valley." From what I tasted at the Village Tea Room, Glynwood, et al., are on the right track. Hank's beans are pretty tasty—nutty with a good bit of crunchy texture, they played well with the La Belle Farm duck confit and sausage and pork belly from Catskill Food Co. (And the Tearoom's quince bread pudding tried its best to steal the show.)
Every seed is a story, as Ken Greene says. The story of Jack and the Beanstalk is a dark tale of theft and worse. It sounds a lot like the rapacious narrative of modern industrial agriculture. But we can choose to tell a different story, and grow it here in our backyard. And it starts with some beans. Magic beans.