A passion for beans

Elizabeth Berry nurtures her specialty beans as if they were members of the family. She's aided in her obsession by chef-friends who love to cook with them.
ELAINE JOHNSON

"Now hold out your hands and close your eyes," says Elizabeth Berry, as excited as a kid on Christmas. She shows me a tiny, hand-sewn cotton pouch with two bumps: two beans, each as fat as a thumb and smooth as satin.

"I swear they're the beans of Jack and the Beanstalk," exclaims Berry about her latest acquisition. "This guy sent them to me from Germany. He says the pods grow 12 inches long. But he only sent two! I'm going to grow them very carefully."

Many farmers grow ordinary beans like pintos or kidneys. A handful grow more unusual beans, as Berry does. But no one else makes plain old beans seem darn near magical.

She's been called the Bean Queen, and at her farm in Abiquiu, New Mexico, Berry's obsession threatens to take over her house. Beans fill the living room, kitchen, and bedroom in paper sacks, dishpans, bowls, envelopes, and zip-lock plastic bags. There are purple-and-black beans, chartreuse beans, yellow, white, and even indigo beans.

"When I grew my first beans nine years ago, I thought, 'A bean's a bean,'" says Berry. "But I gave them to a chef to try. He said they were the best he'd ever had, so I started growing more."

Soon Berry was searching for the best-tasting, most beautiful heirloom beans, varieties that might become extinct if no one creates a market for them. Two years ago she grew 650 varieties culled from the collection at Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa. Now people send her beans from all over the world.

She introduces 20 to 25 varieties at an annual chefs' tasting, where Santa Fe chefs such as Mark Miller of Coyote Cafe and Katharine Kagel of Cafe Pasqual's vote for their favorites. The next year, Berry grows the four most popular beans for seed, and as soon as she has 100 pounds (enough for 1 acre), she passes them on to another farmer to grow in bulk.

"I would grow beans just for their beauty. This way, I find a home for them," Berry explains. "It's fun to swap beans and all that, but I have a bigger vision. I want every supermarket in the country to have them. Each year I expand. It's just a matter of time, and good luck with weather."

This spring Berry will move operations from Abiquiu to her ranch in the Rio Chama wilderness (in northern New Mexico) to devote herself full-time to bean research and development.

Beneath dun-colored mesas where beans have been part of the culture for millenia, Berry plans for her Jack and the Beanstalk beans. "I'm going to trellis them 20 feet high on my purple Inca corn. That will be spectacular!"

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