The best meal of my life, or at least the most memorable, came from a can. I was thirteen at the time and living in France, so that may have had something to do with it. But I credit the beans. My older sisters and I were at a hippie camp in the Alps that summer, not far from the Italian border. My parents had stashed us there while they went home to Oklahoma to check on our house, which they’d rented to some graduate students while my father was on sabbatical. The camp was the cheapest one they could find, and they seemed to have done next to no research before signing us up. My mother just loved the name: Jeunesse du Soleil Levant, Youth of the Rising Sun.
As it turned out, we rarely woke before noon. The camp had promised a vigorous program of crafts, hikes, and team-building games, but the counsellors were usually too hungover, or too caught up in their tent-hopping romances, to bother. (On the last day of camp, I found a stack of unopened boxes behind the mess tent; they were filled with modelling clay and watercolor paints.) We spent most afternoons playing cards and plunking guitars, killing time till after dinner, when we’d hike down to the village to drink beer with grenadine and dance to French disco music.
It was paradise, mostly. The exception was the few mornings when our counsellors, seized by a spasm of conscience, would roust us from our tents and lead us on forced marches through the mountains, declaring that this was what summer camp was all about. It was on one of those trips, on the shore of a frigid lake, that I had the meal of my life. I was famished by then and wobbly with fatigue. I’d spent too many days lounging around, and a counsellor had stuffed two giant cans of cassoulet in my backpack before we left. French trail mix. When we pried them open for dinner, there were only white beans inside, flecked with salt pork. They had one flavor, one texture, one purpose—to fill my stomach—but that was enough. Hunger is a simple thing, an alarm bell in the brain. Sometimes there’s nothing better than shutting it off.
I thought about that meal last spring, when I first met Steve Sando. We were standing at a table heaped with hibiscus flowers, at an outdoor market in the town of Ixmiquilpan, three hours north of Mexico City in the state of Hidalgo. It was a Thursday morning in May, and the stalls were full of women gossiping and picking through produce: corn fungus and cactus paddles, purslane and pickling lime, agave buds and papalo leaf that smelled of mint and gasoline. Sando, who is fifty-eight, ambled among them in a white guayabera shirt, untucked at the waist. He had on loose jeans, tennis shoes, and a bright-red baseball cap that said “Rancho Gordo” above the bill. He could hardly have looked more American, yet he fit in perfectly somehow. He was built like a giant bean.
That may seem too easy, beans being Sando’s business. But people are often shaped by their obsessions, and in Sando’s case the similarities are hard to miss. His body is mostly torso, his skin both ruddy and tanned, like a pinto. He makes a colorful first impression, gets a little starchy if you crowd him, then slowly softens up. Fifteen years ago, when Sando founded Rancho Gordo, he had no food-retailing or farming experience. Now he’s the country’s largest retailer of heirloom beans and a minor celebrity in the culinary world. He’s a side dish who’s become a staple.
“This to me . . . it just makes me so happy,” he said. He was holding a bag of rayado chilies, smoked over an oak fire. He stuck his nose deep inside and inhaled. Weeks later, in my pantry at home, a jar of these chilies would abruptly blossom with black moths, hatched from eggs embedded in their flesh. But Sando was just thinking how great they’d be with a mess of beans. We passed tables of epazote, an herb said to prevent flatulence, and bowls of a greenish-gray soil with a vaguely vegetal smell. “Pond scum from Lake Texcoco,” Sando said. “We use it to soften beans.” To Sando, everything in Mexico seems to connect to beans, and through them to the rest of world cuisine. When he’s at home, in Napa, California, he sometimes gives talks at local elementary schools. He starts by asking the kids where pizza comes from.
“Wrong. Mexico! That’s where tomatoes are from. What about chocolate?”
“Nope. Mexico! That’s where cocoa beans are from. How about vanilla?”
“That’s right! And chilies, corn, and squash, too.” Many of the staples of European and Asian cooking came from Mesoamerica via the Spanish, he explains. It’s called the Columbian Exchange, but it wasn’t much of a trade for the Mesoamericans. They got turnips, barley, and spinach.
Sando is a rather sheepish addition to that history. He’s uneasy about import regulations, fretful of cultural appropriation, and well aware of his fumbling grasp of Mexican custom. “I’m not the Indiana Jones of beans,” he told me. “I’m the Don Quixote.” Every year, he takes one or two trips to Mexico to look for rare varieties and farmers who might grow them for him. He was in Ixmiquilpan to search for an especially elusive quarry: Flor de Durazno, the Flower of the Peach. This was a dainty, pinkish-brown bean of uncommon taste and velvety texture, grown in Hidalgo. Sando had seen it once in his life, in a package sent to his office by a farmer not far from this market. He was hoping to buy two thousand pounds for his Bean Club.
I happen to be a member of the Bean Club, though I’m a little reluctant to admit it. Not that it isn’t a pretty exclusive thing. Anyone can buy beans from Rancho Gordo, but the Bean Club—which sends members six rare varieties and a few other oddments, like blue hominy, every three months—closed its rolls last year. Sando couldn’t keep up with demand. Still, admitting that you’re obsessed with beans is a little like saying you collect decorative plates. It marks your taste as untrustworthy. I’ve seen the reaction often enough in my family: the eye roll and stifled cough, the muttered aside as I show yet another guest the wonders of my well-lit and cleverly organized bean closet. As my daughter Evangeline put it one night, a bit melodramatically, when I served beans for the third time in a week, “Lord, why couldn’t it have been bacon or chocolate?”
Beans are the middle child of American cooking, the food we forget we love. Back in Oklahoma, after my father’s sabbatical, they always seemed to be covered in cheese, coated in ketchup and molasses, or tossed into a three-bean salad like so many protein pellets. The closest I came to the cassoulet was the Sea Island Red Peas that I had in Charleston one spring, thirty years later. They were an heirloom variety, reintroduced by the food historian Glenn Roberts at Anson Mills—potent little field peas, possessed of an unreasonably rich brown broth. But Anson Mills had only the one variety to offer, along with some Purple Cape beans from time to time. Then I found Rancho Gordo.
The beans on Sando’s site look like gems in a jewelry case: crimson, violet, black, and gold; stippled, striped, and swirled. They bear evocative names—Eye of the Goat, Yellow Indian Woman—and range in size from tiny Pinquitos to Royal Coronas the size of a baby’s ear. There is, admittedly, some risk of false advertising. Once the beans have cooked, the colors run and fade, leaving a soupy pot of brownish seeds. The inky depth of a black bean, or the grassiness of a flageolet, is easy to taste. But most varieties aren’t nearly as distinct as their bright costumes portend. Cooking beans is like going to see clowns and sword swallowers at a circus, only to find them all sitting inside the tent, playing canasta. “It’s God’s little joke,” Sando told me.
Sando knows how it is to have a divided nature. How a flashy exterior can conceal a modest but hearty interior. As a boy, growing up in Sausalito in the early seventies, he had his share of social handicaps. He was gay in an era of reflexive homophobia, overweight long before the body-positive movement, and, as a child of divorced parents, always shuttling between homes and schools. He felt both anonymous and glaringly conspicuous. “I was so tired of being the fat new kid,” he told me. “I remember in sixth grade, just after my parents divorced, I sat down next to this girl in summer school, and I heard her say, ‘Well, I guess we have a fat fag on our hands.’ It was like I could hear the violins going backward.” His father, a former Disney animator who’d worked on “101 Dalmatians,” wished him sleeker and more successful; his mother, a nurse, wished him a little more conventional. When he first told them that he was gay, at eighteen, “they let it be known that this was not O.K.,” Sando recalls. “But they came around. My father marched in the gay-pride parade a few years later.”
In his late teens, Sando lost weight and found his crowd, learned to improvise on the piano, and discovered, to his great surprise, that he’d become rather good-looking. “What we call a twink now,” he says. Although he never found a true, long-term partner, he married a friend of a friend in his late thirties and had two boys with her, now nineteen and sixteen. “I’d had every lesbian on the planet ask me for sperm,” he says. “But there was a side of me that said, ‘I can’t do this as a passive bystander.’ ” They raised the boys in adjacent houses for a few years, then divorced. “There’s a sitcom waiting to happen,” he says. But he tells the story flatly, without grievance or irony, as if giving a deposition. “The truth is that your sexual identity is just about the least interesting thing about you,” he says. “Do you play an instrument? That would be interesting.”
Sando now lives with his younger son in the hills above Napa Valley, in a former Seventh-Day Adventist church that he’s decorated with Mexican colonial art and religious icons. (The icons seem to be working. A few weeks after I visited, when wildfires ripped through Northern California, Sando sent me a video of his property: the house was untouched, the trees around it burned to charcoal and ash.) When he’s at ease, he can be loose and self-deprecating, with a mildly sardonic wit. But he’s never quite lost his childhood wariness. His default mode is a kind of prickly joviality, a gregarious misanthropy. He likes people just enough to spend a lot of time with them, at which point he realizes that, on second thought, he’d rather be alone.
In the years between high school and having children, Sando drifted between gainful and fanciful employment. He took a few courses at San Francisco State and at the College of Marin, spent six months backpacking through India, moved to Santa Fe, then London, then to San Francisco again, where he landed a job with Esprit in 1982. The company was in its heyday, selling bright-colored clothes for the notionally idealistic. Sando started out answering phones and was soon overseeing multimillion-dollar accounts. He was a natural salesman, he found, with a gift for turning that striped blouse with pearl buttons into a story that buyers wanted to hear. Esprit’s hip corporate culture—its non-hierarchical offices and upward mobility, free Italian lessons and half-price opera tickets—left a mark on him, he says. But what really stuck was the shrewd branding. The way a luxurious dress could cast a halo over the rest of the line, so that customers felt good getting what they really wanted: the rainbow T-shirt. “They wanted it because the fashion line made them want it,” he says.
Sando left for Milan after five years, thinking that he’d eventually take a job in Esprit’s Italian office. Instead, he wrote to a local radio station offering to host an hour-long jazz show, and, to his shock, the station agreed. The show, which he called “Mr. Lucky,” mixed ambient cocktail sounds with classics from Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan (“My listeners pronounced it Vo-gon”). It developed a following but paid next to nothing, and a year later Sando was back in San Francisco, broke. There followed a string of near-misses and half-successes: music reviewing, music licensing, a zine, a Web site, a Web-site-designing business—the dot-com hopscotch of the late nineties. “Always hand to mouth, always just about to make it,” as he puts it. His mother’s family was well off, and in the back of his mind Sando had long assumed that, if nothing else worked, an inheritance might bail him out. But his grandmother willed everything to his stepgrandfather, who willed everything to his nurse. “I was turning forty by then, and I thought, O.K., you’re a major fuckup,” Sando says. “Just start a garden and get a job at Target.”
The gardening, at least, was a success. In 2000, Sando moved to a house outside Napa, on two and a half acres of land. He planted heirloom Mexican tomatoes at first, then some rare bean varieties he’d found in seed catalogues, and was soon overwhelmed with produce. “I thought I had a gift,” he told me. “But really it was Napa. Anything can grow in Napa.” When the farmers’ market in town wouldn’t have him, he settled for the scruffier one in Yountville, nine miles to the north. But sales were slow. The beans were pretty enough, but a little intimidating: pebbles somehow to be made edible. Shoppers were always mistaking them for candied nuts. “They weren’t part of the standard repertoire,” Sando says. “People would ask, ‘What’s your best bean?’ And the subtext was: ‘Beans are bad. Which is the least bad?’ ” Most of the time, he’d suggest Good Mother Stallards—gorgeous, purple-and-red speckled beans that make a rich broth. But they’d usually shake their heads: “Oh, no, I don’t like dark beans.”
Then one day, in 2003, Thomas Keller came by. His restaurant, the French Laundry, which would later earn three Michelin stars, happened to be in Yountville. “I remember, he had probably a dozen different beans on the table,” Keller told me recently. “To get something that freshly dried was a revelation.” The bean that caught Keller’s eye was a greenish-yellow thing with a red-rimmed eye, like a soybean with a hangover. Called the Vallarta, it was on the verge of extinction when Sando found it, but it had a dense, fudgy texture and gave a good broth. “Steve had taken something that used to be just a dried bean and raised it to a new level, where the flavor was really intense and it cooked so much more consistently,” Keller said. Within a month, it was a staple of the French Laundry. Within a year, every chef in California seemed to be serving beans.
Sando had got it all wrong. He’d been selling beans as a health food, a sop for the meatless. He’d even named his company with the intent of pitching a bean-based diet: Rancho Gordo, Fat Ranch. But all that earnest salesmanship had just made beans seem unappetizing. “People don’t buy moral food,” Sando told me. “They think they do, but they don’t. It’s all about the flavor.” It was another version of the halo effect he’d seen at Esprit: “You start with the chefs and you work your way down.”
The real problem was supply, not demand. Sando had reached the limits of his bean-farming abilities. “I’m very good at the early stages,” he says. “I’m, like, Oh, yeah, I’ve controlled nature. She’s my bitch. But by August I’m thinking, Please, let this be over.” Not long after Keller’s visit, Sando began looking for a farmer. He tried hiring some wonky young guys with “groovy ag ideas,” but their results were as unreliable as his. He approached a few industrial growers, but they said his beans weren’t worth the bother. Heirlooms were too finicky, the yields too low, the orders too small—ten thousand pounds from farmers accustomed to growing two million. Sando’s prices could more than make up for all that: his beans retail for six dollars a pound, about three times the cost of ordinary varieties. But to cover the perceived risk he still had to guarantee some contracts. The farmer got paid even if a crop failed. Finally, in 2012, Sando handed the crop management over to James Schrupp, an agronomist and former commodities trader who’s married to the food writer Georgeanne Brennan. Most of Schrupp’s growers are in California’s San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys and in Washington’s Columbia Basin, though Royal Coronas are grown in Poland. “Jim speaks farmer, which turns out to be a universal language,” Sando told me.
Rancho Gordo now sells half a million pounds of beans a year. The chefs have been followed by other celebrities—bold figures like Andy Richter and Emilio Estevez, unafraid of legumes—and then by ordinary customers. Sando’s beans have sent their tendrils into the “Saveur 100” and O, The Oprah Magazine, and he has published four cookbooks. A few years ago, he was looking through a list of orders on his computer when he found one from Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian cuisine in the United States. He sent her an inscribed copy of his first cookbook, “Heirloom Beans,” published in 2008, and they struck up a correspondence. Soon he had tracked down Hazan’s favorite bean: the Sorana, a type of cannellini that grows along the Pescia River, in Tuscany. This is a bean so tender, with a skin so vanishingly thin, that Rossini once accepted several pounds in exchange for correcting another composer’s score. Sando found a farmer to grow it in California and renamed it the Marcella. When the Times ran a piece about it two years ago, after it went on sale at Rancho Gordo, the orders crashed the Web site.
“This is how all our bean adventures go,” Sando said. “Mercado, iglesia, comida, siesta.” Market, church, food, sleep. We were sitting in the cool confines of San Miguel Arcángel, the coral-colored church that looms over Ixmiquilpan. We’d eaten a great deal of mutton barbacoa at the market, then spent an hour exploring the deserted sixteenth-century convent next door. I was ready for the siesta. Sando, though, wanted to see the sanctuary first. He loved these old colonial buildings, with their bare stone cells and dusky chapels, their peeling saints and tin retables, crimped with wonder and pain. But, like so much in Mexico, they left him discomfited, unsure of his role. Was he a tourist? An amateur art collector? A fair-trade emissary who’d volunteered for Cesar Chavez while still in high school? Or was he just “the gringo elephant in the room”?
Ixmiquilpan was one of his favorite towns in Mexico, but it didn’t always ingratiate itself with outsiders. Its name means “place where the pigweed cuts like knives.” In 1548, when Augustinian friars arrived to convert the local Otomi, they used forced labor to build this church. The results may not have been what they expected. All around us in the sanctuary, crumbling frescoes reached up into the nave: centaurs and griffins, eagle knights and coyote warriors. The Otomi hadn’t just repurposed Christian imagery; they’d replaced it with their own. Instead of angels and saints, there were soldiers beheading one another; instead of Madonnas and Christs, there were pregnant women sprouting from acanthus buds. Sando shook his head: “Every time I come to Mexico, I feel like I know less than I did before.”
Next to him on the pew, Yunuén Carrillo Quiroz gazed up at the altar with a look of mingled pride and disquiet. She and her husband, Gabriel Cortés García, manage all of Rancho Gordo’s operations in Mexico. They are Sando’s fixers, farm managers, production coördinators, and fellow bean researchers. Quiroz, forty-two, is from Mexico City, the daughter of a logistics supervisor at Ford; García, thirty-nine, is from a village near Ixmiquilpan, the eldest son of a social worker. Quiroz is the urban sophisticate, bright and articulate, with a round laughing face and connections with the best restaurants in Mexico City. García is the savvy local, quiet and watchful, with a broad-shouldered frame and a good head for numbers. “It took the right gringo and the right Mexicans to make this happen,” Sando said.
And yet the three of them straddled two cultures as uneasily as the Otomi. The frescoes were ostensibly about the tribe’s battles against the Chichimecas to the north, but Quiroz saw a different message. “They’re a call to war for all indigenous people,” she said. “Even the eagle above the altar is wearing a native headdress. When Christ’s blood is served at Communion, it’s a kind of blood sacrifice.” Quiroz told me the story of La Malinche, the infamous native woman who served as Cortés’s translator and adviser during the conquest. As Rancho Gordo has expanded its Mexican operations, some chefs in Mexico City have accused Quiroz of being a culinary La Malinche. “They say, ‘Why are you telling him about these beans?’ ” Sando said. “ ‘Why didn’t you tell us first?’ Well, the beans were there all along.”
“It’s true that a lot of the really good Mexican products get exported,” the chef Enrique Olvera told me. “But if you keep some here and export the rest there’s no problem. Food migrates.” Olvera is the owner of Pujol, in Mexico City, which is often cited as one of the best restaurants in the world, and of Cosme and Atla, in New York. He met Quiroz ten years ago and has been a Rancho Gordo customer ever since. The Columbian Exchange is less lopsided than it used to be, he pointed out. Mexican cooks use cilantro and cheese, from Asia and Europe. Why not share their beans?
Mexico is the cradle of the common bean. It’s where Phaseolus vulgaris first evolved, two million years ago, and it still has the greatest bean diversity in the world. “I always had a fantasy of bringing beans from here,” Sando told me. But when he first came to Mexico, in 2001, he had no import-export experience, no real connections. Although he spoke a little Spanish, he’d never mastered the accent and had a disconcerting habit of mixing in Italian words. (“It’s like music, really,” he says.) Worse still, he had no idea where to find the best varieties. He kept getting wrong-footed. At one point, at a market in Mexico City, he came upon a basket of beans as bright and various as a designer’s color wheel. Revuelto, the seller called them. It was only later, after Sando had bought several pounds, that he realized that these weren’t some magical, rainbow-colored variety; they were random beans tossed together. Revuelto means “scrambled.”
When Sando did manage to locate a bean that he wanted to grow in the United States, the locals wouldn’t sell it to him. “They were appalled,” he told me. “They were, like, ‘Seeds are life.’ ” Why would they give their greatest asset away? Sando asked if they could grow the beans locally, then export them to the United States. But that still made no sense to them. For decades, agronomists had been telling Mexican farmers to get with the program, to grow the latest high-yielding varieties in order to compete with China and Peru. Now here was this strange, excitable American saying he didn’t like modern beans. He’d much rather have the ones their grandparents grew. “They were incredulous,” Sando says. He was paying them to regress.
Sando met Quiroz and García in 2008. A year earlier, the couple had started exporting dried prickly-pear-cactus fruit and other local specialties from Hidalgo. They were young, childless (they now have a six-year-old daughter, Yunuéncita), and as hungry to explore their country as Sando was. A pattern was established: Sando would fly down and they’d pile into a truck with a few bags. Then they’d set off for Michoacán, Oaxaca, Veracruz, the Yucatán—anywhere with a great bean-cooking tradition. Which seemed to be everywhere. They’d start in the village markets, then zero in on the older ladies at the periphery, in the indigenous section, with small sacks of produce from their gardens. If they found an interesting bean, García would talk to the farmers, Quiroz would talk to the women, and Sando would stay out of the way till the deal was done. “We try not to irritate people,” Quiroz says.
Everywhere they went, they found new beans. Some were spectacular, like the delicate, rose-colored Lila that grew in Morelos, in the shadow of an active volcano. Others never caught on, like the Ron bean from the Yucatán, with its thick ochre skin and bland flesh, or the Veronico, from the town of Tecozautla, which looked like a pine nut but tasted like a cowpea. There were always new varieties to take their place, though. “It was like Ali Baba,” Quiroz told me. “We discovered an explosion of beans.”
Late one morning at the hacienda where García grew up, in the thorn-and-blossom-covered hills southwest of Ixmiquilpan, Sando made me a pot of beans. The hacienda has an enormous wood-fired stove in the center of the kitchen, with seven burners of volcanic stone. When the building was a Jesuit monastery, in the eighteenth century, the stove was used to feed the brethren and their servants. After the Spanish crown evicted the Jesuits from Mexico, in 1767, the hacienda was bought by wealthy silver miners. While the kitchen served them and their guests, ranks of campesinos grew crops, tended cattle, and fermented pulque on the surrounding land. When the revolution came, the hacienda was looted, its chapel burned and its water lines shattered. What was left was half mansion and half ruin, still shunned by the local villagers. A precinct of ghosts.
The stove is rarely used now. García’s mother and her best friend, Lupe, whose family bought the hacienda in the nineteen-thirties, prefer the gas range. Both women are exceptional cooks in the elaborate Mexican home style. In the days when I was there, they laid out dozens of dishes in the hacienda’s formal dining room: black-bean rolls with sardines; chilaquiles with tomatillos and Oaxacan cheese; slender local avocados with edible, anise-flavored skin; and sweet, buttery slices of mamey, the fruit of a tropical evergreen tree. Lupe’s cow’s-foot soup was made with pieces of stomach, Puya chilies, and dried prickly-pear-cactus fruit. It had a deeply funky flavor and a mucilaginous texture that was off-putting at first—it was like sipping a whole cow—then weirdly addictive. But the beans were different. The beans were dead simple.
Sando and Lupe began by building a fire on the covered porch that encircled the hacienda’s courtyard. She balanced a slender clay pot above the coals, then Sando poured in some olive oil and dropped in a handful of chopped onion. When they’d cooked awhile, he put in a few cups of water and a bowl of Moro beans, speckled black and gray like a starling’s belly. He added two whole cloves of garlic, a few crystals of Mixtecan salt, which contains natural softeners, and a bay leaf. Then Lupe set a small bowl of water on the pot, to serve as a lid and to replenish the beans, and left it to simmer.
Easy enough, yet everything they’d done was debatable. Lupe would have used lard instead of olive oil and raw instead of sautéed onion. She preferred avocado leaves to bay, and epazote to the Cuban oregano that Sando used. And those were just matters of taste. The thornier debates were technical. Should beans be soaked? (Yes, most cookbooks say, but that’s only because store-bought beans are often years old.) When should they be salted? (After they’re cooked, most recipes insist; but tests have shown that soaking and cooking beans in salt water both plumps them up and helps them hold their shape.) How should they be cooked? (Simmering is the rule, but Sando recommends a brief hard boil first, “to let them know you’re the boss.”) Is pressure-cooking allowed? (The French Laundry swears by it; Sando says it kills the broth.) The simpler the food, the more every variable counts.
Watching Sando and Lupe cook, I realized what I’d been doing wrong. I’d been trying so hard to make my family love beans that my dishes had got more and more complicated, like the ones in Oklahoma. I’d added bacon, brown sugar, kielbasa, and Southern ham, whole heads of garlic and bunches of sage; I’d made minestrone, pasta e fagioli, and Brazilian feijoada. Good recipes, but poor psychology. Instead of showcasing the beans, I’d camouflaged them, turned them into a suspect food—an element to be rooted out, like the spinach that parents hide in pizza. “I hate recipes,” Sando said. “I always tell people to cook beans simply, and they always say, ‘Oh, I did. I just used a ham hock and chicken stock.’ Well, in that case you might as well use commercial pintos.”
The best staples make a virtue of blandness. They quiet the mind. The nuttiness in rice, the mineral in a potato, the hint of chocolate in a Rio Zape bean are all the better for being barely there. They make your senses reach out to them. (That’s why turnips, sweet and faintly bitter, don’t quite cut it; they have too much going on.) The conundrum, for a seller of heirloom beans, is that those qualities are the opposite of what he’s advertising. To get people to pay three times the cost of store-bought beans, Sando needs to convince them that his are dramatically different. That canned beans are a travesty by comparison. Yet to expect a burst of flavor from a Moro is to miss the point.
Sando fished a few beans from the pot with a wooden spoon. He blew on them to see if their skin split and curled back—the sign that they were done—then gave them to me. They tasted like a cross between black beans and pintos, with just a trace of the Cuban oregano. Had I made them at home, I would have added more salt. Maybe some cumin. And then maybe some cilantro and a squeeze of lime. But they turned out to be just right as they were: the perfect foil for the cow’s-foot soup. “There’s something miraculous about turning this rock into something that tastes good,” Sando said.
Sando likes to tell a story about a field trial at the University of California, Davis, a few years ago. The school’s agronomists had laid out test plots of hybrid beans bred for every possible attribute: shelf life, yield, insect resistance, disease resistance. They scanned the fields digitally with drones, then counted the percentage of green pixels to quantify each variety’s growth. They used infrared cameras to show how much water the leaves were retaining—an indication of heat- and drought-resistance. But when Sando asked about taste, the agronomists drew a blank. They hadn’t tested for that.
To Sando, this was unforgivable. But how different are heirloom beans, really? How much do Lupe’s Moros owe to the cook and the setting—to the skylit dining room and the green Oaxacan pottery, the colonial architecture and the swallows in the fig trees—and how much to their untampered genes? Sando’s chief counterpart in this debate is Paul Gepts, a professor of plant sciences at Davis. Gepts is a small Belgian man of seemingly indeterminate age (he is sixty-four), with a bottlebrush mustache and bespectacled eyes that glint with suppressed humor. Physically, he’s a smaller, paler version of Sando—the navy bean to the other man’s lima. When I asked Gepts if beans were his primary focus, he smiled and murmured, “I am Mr. Bean.” The following week, he gave the keynote address at the International Bean Conference in Brazil.
Gepts takes a fatherly pride in his subjects. On the bookcase in his office, jars of beans sit side by side with pictures of his son. He keeps an eye on Rancho Gordo’s Web site, he told me, to see which beans are selling and to intervene in the forums sometimes, to correct an especially wrongheaded post. But he doesn’t segregate beans as Sando does—into heirloom and industrial, authentic and engineered varieties. To Gepts, their entire history is a genetic experiment. His research has shown that beans were domesticated twice: in Mesoamerica, where their wild forebears evolved, and in the Andes. Mesoamerican beans are smaller and rounder, Andean beans more kidney-shaped. Mesoamerican varieties tend be more prolific, Andean varieties more colorful. Pinto, navy, and black beans are Mesoamerican. Cranberry, cannellini, and large lima beans are Andean. “I can see just by looking at them which ones are which,” Gepts said.
To a bean breeder, the difference is more than academic. Mesoamerican and Andean beans have different yields and tolerances; they get different diseases and thrive in different climates. Crossbreed them one way and you can consolidate their best traits in a single bean; crossbreed them in another way and you may get a “lethal line” that withers on the vine. (Mesoamerican and Andean beans tend not to cross well.) Building better beans is more than just a commercial enterprise, Gepts says. It’s essential to feeding the world. In some African countries, beans represent almost half of the protein that people eat, and they’re sometimes smuggled across borders to meet demand.
Later that day, Gepts drove me out to the university’s experimental farm, where some new breeds were being tested for drought resistance. Eight bean varieties had been crossed with one another for three generations, producing nine hundred and sixty genetic lines, each marked by a little stick in the dirt. Half of the plots were well watered and green; the other half were parched and yellow. Gepts stepped over to a row of scraggly-looking tepary beans and cracked open a pod. “This is the bean that can most beat the drought,” he said, pointing to the hard black seeds inside. “The question is, why don’t people eat them?”
The answer seems obvious to Sando. “Have you tasted those beans?” he asked me later. “Blech!” But Gepts says it’s not that simple. Four years ago, he and some colleagues conducted a taste test of garbanzo beans. They asked a panel of ten plant breeders, seed brokers, food technicians, and other professionals to rate sixteen varieties according to seven criteria: size, flavor, texture, color, consistency, wholeness, and skin condition. The only things they couldn’t agree on were flavor and texture. The loss of flavor to industrial farming can be “an issue,” Gepts admitted. But it’s hard to quantify. Unlike tomatoes, say, which are picked green and bred tough for transport, beans can ripen on the vine and stay sturdy once dried. A mealy pink tomato tastes nothing like the crimson fruit at a farmers’ market. A store-bought bean still tastes like a bean.
Sando says that he can easily tell the differences among varieties—some black beans are creamy, for instance, others more starchy or meaty—not to mention the difference between freshly dried beans like his and those that have languished on a supermarket shelf. “And if your point of reference is the canned kidney bean at a salad bar, I totally understand if you hate beans,” he said. The chef Enrique Olvera goes further. A bean grown in an industrial field tastes nothing like the same bean grown at a small farm where crops are rotated, he says. Yet those differences may have little to do with how much we like a bean. When I asked chefs about their favorite bean dishes, they invariably went back to their childhood. Olvera talked about the black beans that his grandmother cooked with a little lime, amachito pepper, and Mexican coriander. David Breeden, the chef de cuisine at the French Laundry, recalled the pinto beans and corn bread that his mother made in eastern Tennessee. (The version that he served me at the restaurant was the single best thing in a meal of small astonishments.) Even Thomas Keller, a famously fastidious cook, waxed nostalgic about the white-bean soup that his mother used to make. “She would just take some canned beans and chicken stock and purée them,” he told me. “It didn’t require a lot of attention, because the beans didn’t have a lot of integrity, but it made this wonderful, velvety soup.”
Bean eaters are creatures of habit. “It’s very marked,” Gepts said. “In Colombia, they like big red beans. In Venezuela, they like small black beans. It’s all about which beans you grew up with.” For a breeder, that means the one trait you can’t mess with is appearance. “With wheat, the husks may look different or the seeds may be different shapes, but they’ll get ground into flour eventually,” Gepts said. “That’s not true with beans.” He stepped over to another row of plants and snapped open a pod. “Not white enough,” he said. Then he reached across to the next row. These plants were especially lush, and their seeds were among the most beautiful I’d seen: glossy and olive brown, with a shimmering stripe like a tiger’s-eye gem. Gepts shook his head. “It’s not a commercial plant,” he said, tossing a pod into the weeds. “People want beans to look the way they’ve always looked.”
The Flower of the Peach was like no bean Sando had ever seen. This made it irresistible to him—“I’m a whore,” he told me. “My favorite bean is always the last one I ate”—but not necessarily to his customers. For all his efforts on behalf of Mexican beans, three-quarters of his sales are still for European varieties. His top sellers are Royal Coronas, followed by cassoulet, flageolet, cranberry, and Marcella beans. “There are total Mexican-bean addicts, but a lot of people will never buy them,” he said, as we drove to meet the Flor de Durazno farmers. “Which irritates me. They’re twenty-five per cent of my sales but forty per cent of my time.”
If anything can grow in Napa, very little seems to grow in most of Hidalgo. It’s Mexican cowboy country, though cattle seem to like it no better than crops do. In the small towns between ranches, lanky men in straw hats lean in shady doorways, waiting for their feed orders to be filled, their boots to be reheeled. It’s a landscape of relentless sun and little water, where the fields look like empty lots, scattered with gravel. In Napa, the fog rolls in from the Pacific every morning to wet the plants, then parts obligingly for the sun in the afternoon. In the San Joaquin Valley, beans are harvested by a machine called Big Bertha, which can pick and thresh fifty thousand pounds a day. In Hidalgo, the harvests are done mostly by hand. When I asked one farmer if it was hard to plant in such rocky soil, he said, “No, no, we like the rocks. We pile them around the seedlings to shield them from the sun.”
Sando’s growers lived in a village north of Ixmiquilpan, past a small school for indigenous Nahuatl speakers, on a dirt road with goats scampering about. The compound was hidden behind a tall palisade of cactus and purple bougainvillea. When we arrived, three men in jeans and denim work shirts came out to greet us: a father, son, and uncle, with a few small boys peeking from behind them. They’d stretched a blue plastic tarp above a picnic table in the courtyard, and their wives and daughters were setting out charro beans and fresh tortillas. There followed a good deal of halting, touchingly formal talk about harvests and the maddening intermittence of rain. The toughest part of working with Mexican farmers, Sando had told me, is their circumspection. “They’re so polite, and we’re used to being so direct,” he said. “If my bookkeeper forgets to pay for a crop, the farmer might say, ‘It’s been really hard lately. We’ve been eating a lot of cactus.’ It’s only after a while that I’ll realize, ‘Oh, you mean you didn’t get the check!’ ”
Rancho Gordo pays its Mexican farmers anywhere from five to thirty per cent above the market rate, Quiroz says. But when I asked the farmers about their prices and yields for the Flor de Durazno, an awkward, side-glancing silence ensued. “It’s universal among farmers,” Sando interjected. “Yield is connected to self-worth.” García huddled with the men for a moment, then whispered something to Quiroz, who came over to us. “Would you mind if we all had a beer together? Gabriel says they’re getting nervous.”
These were tentative, fragile relationships, Sando told me later, with men who’d been screwed over again and again by buyers. The best way to keep their trust was to bring money year after year and not to ask too many questions. “At some point, it’ll be nice to look back and say we helped them pave their roads, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “We’re still in the middle of this. They’re not stable, we’re not stable. And it’s been ten years. So it’s the farmer’s job to get as much as he can, and I need to get the price as low as I can. We both need to win.” He shrugged. “I’m not a saint. I’m here to make a profit. I don’t want to save the world with beans.”
After the jugs had been emptied and the plates cleared, the farmers clapped García on the back and climbed into a pickup truck. Aside from a small cup of peach-colored beans that they’d passed round, there had been no sign of Sando’s order. We followed the farmers out to a small storage shed on the outskirts of the village, and they motioned for us to join them. Inside, ten bulging nylon bags stood stacked in a corner, each filled with two hundred pounds of Flor de Durazno beans. They’d been there all along.
Driving back to the hacienda that afternoon with Quiroz and García, Sando seemed, for just a moment, content. His sales were growing by a steady fifteen to twenty per cent a year. The Bean Club had a waiting list of more than five hundred, and he was thinking of reopening it in the spring. (When he launched a Facebook group for the club last August, it was flooded with recipes and pictures. Sample comment: “HOLY CRAP, these beans were good.”) Yet Sando still mistrusted his success. “My father always said, ‘If you’re coasting, you’re going downhill.’ ”
These bean adventures were getting harder to organize, he said. In the early years, the three of them could travel wherever they wanted. The goal was just to get lost. Now drug violence had reached such a pitch—nearly thirty thousand murders in 2017, higher even than at the peak of Mexico’s drug wars, in 2011—that entire states were off limits. “Parts of Michoacán aren’t safe at all,” Sando said. “Same thing with Veracruz. I have friends in Puebla, but for the first time I don’t feel comfortable going there at night.” Two years earlier, on their way to an indigenous sugar coöperative in San Luis Potosí, they’d been pinned down for four hours by federal agents, who were pursuing some narcos ahead. More recently, the skulls of more than two hundred and fifty people, probably victims of drug cartels, had been found in a mass grave in Veracruz, near a house the trio used to rent. The last time they stayed there, Sando said, the electricity went out inexplicably one night. “And I thought, Oh, this is how I die.”
Perhaps the wiser move was to pare down Rancho Gordo’s offerings, focus on what sold best. “New strategy!” Sando said. “Just please the bean freaks.” Yet he kept dreaming of new varieties: Icatone white beans from the Tarahumara peoples in Chihuahua, or pearl-gray Frijolon de Zimatlán from Oaxaca, or, best of all, the Rosa de Castilla from Michoacán. “It’s my Moby Dick,” he said. “Just to look at those beans makes my knees buckle. And they’re absolutely delicious—velvety but light, with a great bean broth.” The narcos were a problem, true. But García might be able to source the beans through an avocado grower he knew, or a local restaurant owner. Or maybe they should go to the city of Juchitán, on the Pacific Coast, where some Zapotecan men identify as a third gender, known as muxe, and dress and behave like women. They have a four-day festival every November, called La Vela de las Auténticas Intrépidas Buscadoras del Peligro, or the Vigil of the Authentic, Intrepid Danger-Seekers. Sando grinned. “And they have great beans!”
A few months later, back in Brooklyn, a small box arrived on my doorstep. The label bore the Rancho Gordo logo, with a Mexican starlet licking her lips. I found the usual Bean Club bounty inside: one-pound bags of Alubia Blanca and Domingo Rojo, Yellow Indian Woman, and, buried at the bottom, the Flor de Durazno. I cooked them simply, as Sando and Lupe had taught me—though I made an ancho-chili salsa on the side, just in case. When I served them later, Evangeline glanced down at her bowl with a familiar look of resignation. She took one bite, then another, then turned to me with her eyebrows slightly raised. “They’re really delicious,” she said. “For beans.” ♦
It is by now news to very few people that the princess who lives in the world that you step into when you visit Medieval Times—the almost-35-year-old dinner theater known for chicken legs and jousting knights—has been promoted, or rather, coronated. Princess Catalina is now a queen. The made-up reason—spoiler alert: Her father dies—is less surprising, perhaps, than the real story: Guests of the show, and they are legion and very often repeat customers, wanted more women in stronger, more powerful roles. The kingdom (a privately held entertainment company that is based in Texas and has eight castles in the U.S. and one in Canada) heard its subjects/paying customers and delivered, introducing Queen Doña Maria Isabella at the end of 2017. “We decided we’re going to give the people what they want,” says Erin Zapcic, a former princess who now plays the queen a few nights a week at a castle on the edge of the New Jersey Meadowlands. (She also works in marketing for the company.)
It’s a big deal for a lot of reasons, including the less obvious one, logistics. It takes months to update a show that plays simultaneously in nine castles. More obviously, there is the current cultural climate, though Medieval Times officials insist they were changing the show before the #MeToo movement became a trending topic. For the princesses themselves, it’s been great to take the throne. Cameron Inman, a former princess who is now queen, was in Spain when she learned of the change. “When I heard what they were doing, just as someone on the outside,” she says, “I thought: This is so empowering, empowering for girls and women, because people still come up to me and say, ‘Oh, the princess.’ And I’m like, ‘No, actually. I am the queen.’ It’s so stereotypical for someone to see a woman in a dress with a crown and say, ‘Oh, she’s a princess.’ They don’t put her in a leadership role. But now we can say, ‘Oh, no, this is my castle. I’m actually the queen here.’ And to see little girls’ faces when you tell them that! Their eyes glow and they light up, and you’re like, ‘Yes, you don’t have to be in that stereotypical role.’”
What will change next? Will serving wenches stay serving wenches? Will the role be open to men? Fans will have to wait to find out, since Medieval Times only changes the show every four or five years. “We’re taking it one step at a time,” says Jessica Schear, a New Jersey–based Queen Isabella. “Right now, we’re just focusing on the queen and this new show, but anything is possible in the future.” It is safe to say that the queens miss their princesses, to some extent. “I loved playing the princess,” says Tara Henderson. “I got choked up on my final night, when I turned in my tiara. But one of the things I love the most about acting is that it challenges me to grow as a person. Queen Isabella is such a rich character, and I love stepping onstage every night and finding new things in her, finding new ways to rule.”