An Audience With the `Bean King'

John Withee ate beans nearly every day as a child; as an adult, he's still a bean fan

JOHN WITHEE can talk animatedly about beans for just about as long as he cooks them. And he starts his beans at 6 a.m. - for a 6 p.m. dinner. Name the bean - Trout, Loch Ness, Rattlesnake, Jacob's Cattle, King Tut, Painted Lady, Seafarer, Horsehead - and Mr. Withee can tell you its virtues, drawbacks, shape, size, history, and uses.

Withee is a bean expert with the proper bean breeding: He was born in Maine, and grew up eating beans nearly six days a week. He has written a bean cookbook (now out of print), and proudly notes that he is the originator of bean sausage and makes a mean pot of baked beans.

But he is best known, perhaps, for his bean collection. ``Every place I went, I tried to find a bean I didn't have,'' he says of his 12-year search. ``New Orleans was a good spot,'' he says with a nostalgic glance. ``I found quite a few down there.''

His collection of 1,200 beans was so extensive that, in 1978, Organic Gardening magazine and the Seed-Savers Exchange in Iowa requested portions of it to preserve in their seed banks.

Before retiring, Withee headed Dartmouth College's photography department, and worked as a medical photographer in Massachusetts. Despite his state-hopping, he is still pure Mainer, reminiscing at length on the good ol' bean days.

He grew up in Gorham, Maine, near Kennebunkport, in a family of eight. His father was a grocer, and one day brought home a barrel full of Soldier beans. ``We ate Soldier beans all winter,'' he recalls in an interview at his home in this little farming community north of Springfield, Mass. ``Saturday night was baked beans, Sunday morning was the warmed-over beans. ... Any remainder of those beans made wonderful bean sandwiches for school - mashed beans with a little bit of mayonnaise makes a wonderful sandwich,'' he says.

``Wednesday was always stew beans,'' cooked on top of the stove to make a hearty bean soup. Thursday was the same. ``Then there was a day off before Saturday nights rolled around again. Beans are very versatile,'' he says. There are even recipes for bean cake and candy, he adds.

Withee's family sometimes baked their beans in the backyard in a bean hole - an ancient cooking technique that dates from Biblical times, he says. Jewish religious beliefs prohibited cooking on the Saturday sabbath, but a warm meal was still possible by preparing food this way the day before.

Dig a hole about four or five inches deeper and wider than the bean pot, Withee instructs. ``Line it with rocks and build a fire in it. Get the rocks hot, rake out most of the coals, drop in the pot of beans,'' he continues. Leave about two inches of space between the rocks and the pot, and fill the space with more coals. (Be sure you use a pot that has a wire handle and a lid that curls over the edges of the pot to keep the dirt out.) Shovel the remaining coals on top of the pot, then ``cover it all with earth, and forget it for a day,'' he says. Twenty-four hours later, you've got a bean dinner.

On the last Saturday in July in South Paris, Maine, bean-hole beans (Maine loggers also used to cook this way) are served by the town ``beanmaster'' to some 3,000 bean-lovers at the annual Oxford County Bean-Hole Bean Festival.

WITHEE laments beans' reputation: ``They've always had such a low image,'' he says - the expression ``They don't know beans,'' for example. A new variety, Jacob's Cattle Gasless (available from Seeds Blum; see address at left) may improve their image somewhat. But among Mainers, the lowly bean is king, and must be prepared as such.

Don't dice up the pork, Withee says. ``No Mainer ever does that,'' he scoffs. ``He cuts the pork in half,'' so that he can throw it away if he wants. ``If somebody wants a perfect baked bean of any variety, then they must search out a truly smoked bacon,'' he says. ``The bacon we usually buy is painted-on smoke.''

He abhors ketchup or an onion in his pot, and always uses molasses. Using maple syrup is just a waste of maple syrup, he says.

``The difference between sweet beans and unsweetened is a matter that will divide families,'' he continues. ``My contention has always been that people, generally, in their recipes and in their practice, make the beans too sweet. ... If you follow somebody's recipe for baked beans, cut the amount of sweetener by half, because it's possible to add, but you can't subtract sweetening.''

A good baking bean is one that will ``stand up to the baking time.''

``Any of the beans can make baked beans,'' even lima beans, he says. In fact, try mixing different varieties in the same pot, he suggests. You get ``an altogether different treat because of the mouth sensation, with a little bean, and a big bean, and one that's a little different cooked.'' He admits he has difficulty tasting the difference between bean varieties, ``except when it comes to a red kidney.''

Beans don't get tougher as they get bigger, he says. ``Some fancy restaurant in California uses [big beans] as a dip, a little hors d'oeuvre.'' Withee plans to grow scarlet runner beans in his garden this year to try the recipe:

Take large Scarlet Runner or Painted Lady beans, ``simmer them until they're tender. You don't have to worry about whether they're fully cooked, as long as they're tender enough to bite.'' Let them cool, and ``stick a colored toothpick in one. Dip it into something, and eat a single [bean],'' he says with delight.

When Withee made bean collecting into a full-time hobby, he started a bean catalog that resulted in correspondence. He traded beans like collectors trade stamps or baseball cards.

``There weren't 1,200 varieties of beans back at the time of Christ in this country, there were just a few,'' he says, launching into a ``beaneology'' lesson. ``But as the Indians traded them across the country, certain changes took place. Now, I like to call it `genetic shift.''' A bean can alter - become smaller, less red, change in texture and flavor - when you grow it in a different place than where it originated, he explains. Today, it's thought that there are more than 4,000 bean varieties.

The red-and-white Jacob's Cattle bean got its name from spotted cattle in a Bible story, says Withee. In Germany, the same bean was called forellen, which is German for ``trout.'' Sulphur beans were named for their yellow color, and Soldier beans are named for the stick-figure image on them. Lazy Wife beans are easy to shell. And so on.

``We could go on and on with anecdotes forever!'' Withee says with a grin.

Truly, if there is a king of beans, he deserves the crown.

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