Why Do Poisonous Beans Have to Taste So Good?

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Holly A. Heyser


So my friend Scott over at the Sausage Debauchery and I are emailing about the weird Italian stuff he imports, and he cryptically says, "Look into cicerchia if you've not heard of them (I'm sure you have) they're related to the chickpea, AKA chickling vetch and flat pea."

Well, as it happens, I had not heard of this weird bean. But I am a fan of weird beans, in no small part because another friend, Ken Albala, wrote a history book called Beans that I found way more interesting than I thought a book about pulses could be. Legumes fascinate me: they probably predate grains as a source of food for humans because they are larger and easier to harvest than little seeds of barley or wheat. Indeed, the cicerchia, as the Italians call it, is very, very old. Possibly one of the oldest cultivated plants in human existence. I had to have some.

Scott sent some over. He's one of a small number of importers selling this rare bean, although I have seen them from time to time at Corti Bros here in Sacramento. When the beans arrived, they were curious. A cross between a chickpea and a black-eyed pea. Definitely Old World. New World beans look like, well, beans—pinto, kidney, Great Northern, etc. Old World beans are funny-looking—think favas, black-eyed peas, lentils, chickpeas.

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Hank Shaw

I immediately went to Ken's book and looked in the index for cicerchia. Nothing. So I tried one of the other names Scott had mentioned. There we go—"Chickling Vetch, page 89." I turned to the page, and noticed I was in Ken's chapter entitled "Oddballs and Villains." Not a good sign.

Apparently cicerchia has been a famine food for eons because it can withstand brutal droughts that would kill any other legume, save the tepary bean of the Sonoran Desert (as it happens, I am growing tepary beans now). So in tough times, people in Italy, Spain, India, Ethiopia, and elsewhere relied on cicerchia as their main sustenance for months.

Bad idea. Chickling vetch contains something called diaminopropionic acid. Translated, this means your ass will wither away and you'll get nerve damage if you eat these beans every day for months. The disease is called lathryism; cicerchia's proper name is lathyrus sativus.

I emailed Ken. "Um, I have a bunch of these beans. Should I eat them?" Ken said sure, and in his book he says, "eating the beans now and then poses no danger, only excessive consumption every day for several months. Thorough soaking and cooking also purportedly leaches out most of the neurotoxin." Well, hell! I just played around with sassafras, which some say will give me cancer. Screw it, let's cook some cicerchia!

Right out of the gate, I wanted to be sure I could taste the beans, so I just whipped up a simple cicerchia bean salad: beans, feta cheese, lots of parsley, garlic, and some grape tomatoes. Good olive oil and a hit of lemon juice at the end. Easy-peasy.

I am fixated on a neurological condition caused by eating too many hard-to-find beans that, among other things, specifically strikes your butt muscles.

My first taste of the villainous bean ...

Damn. I knew this was going to happen. I like cicerchia beans. I mean really like them. They taste like a cross between a chickpea and a lentil, with the texture of a black-eyed pea. There's something else, a dusty kind of flavor, not earthy so much as desert-y. Absolute effing bummer. I could see why the Slow Food movement fought to bring this bean back from the edge of extinction in Umbria, and I definitely could see why hungry Ethiopians could gorge themselves on these things ... and then get permanent nerve damage that includes the withering of the gluteus maximus.

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Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.
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