Magic [Marfax] Beans

Like most Tuesdays, I was working from home yesterday.  At lunchtime I took my two dogs out for a quick stroll around the three wooded acres where we live.   When we approached my tiny patch of sunlit garden nestled among the trees, I was surprised to see something that definitely hadn’t been there the day before: Five little Marfax bean seedlings had broken through their covering of compost, still bean-capped, leafless and bent over, they were nevertheless making their way towards the sun.  I’ve been gardening for years, and I love it, but I surprised even myself with the childish glee with which I observed the seedlings.  There is a reason there are so many cliché sayings about planting seeds.  I could suddenly see my whole bean-filled summer garden unfolding before my eyes, and I had equally vivid images of my bean-filled belly come harvest-time this fall!

All over New England, this little bean miracle is playing out on a much larger scale than in my tiny garden.  Marfax beans are one of the sixteen varieties of heirloom vegetables we’ve asked twenty-eight farmers in the Providence, Portsmouth, and Boston areas to grow for the RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) Grow-Out project Chefs Collaborative is piloting this year.  When their much larger fields of Marfax beans are mature, we have thirty-five chefs lined up, eager to buy, feature and promote them on their menus.  At Chefs Collaborative, we hope that the community building we’re promoting during the Grow-Out establishes connections between farmers and chefs that grow beyond the bounds of the project.  But community building will not be the only source of interesting connections to come out of this project; growing Marfax beans establishes a significant connection between all the participants and the rich agricultural history of New England.

The origins of the Marfax bean are mostly lost, but we know they have been grown in New England for over a century.  Some sources suggest they were a favorite among the logging camp cooks in Maine, who floated their bean rafts (think food truck on a raft) down Maine’s rivers, feeding loggers their four times-daily meals of beans.  The camp cooks were not only unique in their distribution of baked beans, they also cooked them in an interesting way.  In a method most likely learned from Native Americans, camp cooks cooked their beans in a “bean hole:” a rock-lined fire pit in the ground where the pot of beans was buried to slowly cook from residual heat held by the stones.  Many Mainers continue the bean hole tradition at outdoor fairs and festivals, and at MOFGA‘s (Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association) annual Common Ground Fair, the Marfax bean is one of the favorite beans for the bean hole!

The beans are medium-small, roundish, and golden-tan colored.  They have a rich flavor and are great for baked beans.  I know I’ll be torn when it comes to using my small crop of Marfax beans – should I dig a bean hole for a historic taste of Marfax beans, recreate a dish made by a Grow-Out chef, or come up with my own use?  Should I eat all my beans, or save a few to plant again next year?  No matter what I do, I’ll be thinking about the farmers and chefs participating in our project, and the rich history of Marfax beans throughout New England.  In future blog posts, I’ll be writing about Grow-Out farms and restaurants, not my own garden… but yesterday, those five little seedlings really brought this project home for me.

– Anne Obelnicki, RAFT Grow-Out Project Coordinator


2009-06-24T17:02:47+00:00June 3rd, 2009|Blog|14 Comments

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  1. Coco June 4, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Definitely save a few to plant next year! Their color is gorgeous–sort of a terra cotta.

  2. SarahB June 4, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Anne, what a wonderful project! I’m so excited to hear about it from afar, and would love to eat at a participating restaurant on my next visit to Boston

  3. ConnieO. June 5, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Congratulations on a very worth while project and a very interesting artical. The pictures are very nice too. I also have beans growing in my city backyard and am very excited to see them poping up. I like seeing the wonders of nature close to home. As a child, I can remember enjoying a little garden behind the garage: a row of set onions and a row of green beans. 50 years later, it is still exciting.

  4. Charlotte Vallaeys June 7, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    I vote for trying out the bean hole. Just make sure the dogs don’t dig it up before you do!

  5. Nancy Bitzarakis June 9, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    Way to go Annie. It is heartening to me to see the “younger generation” promoting such earth friendly food endeavors. I know the world has been doing this for decades – still, it’s great to see it being done in such a concious manner. Makes me feel like this will go on forever.

  6. Sharon Sevonty June 11, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    I’m not as an accomplished chef as you, but I do enjoy watching things grow and trying my hand at creating new recipes. I loved your description of finding the beans and describing their history. You are an excellent writer – a multi-talented young woman.

  7. Arthur Zoidis November 13, 2009 at 11:24 am

    I am eating these Marfax beans right now and they are excellent. They are a meaty and hearty bean with a nice density to the bite. (I know why the loggers&lumberjacks loved them; very filling)
    Do not over or under cook otherwise all of these characteristics will diminish.
    The Yellow Eye bean has always been my fav and was the only bean my dad baked with at the restaurant for years. I still use them for the maximum in taste but the Marfax is a strong second for overall delicious. Thanks for the pics and kowledge of this bean.

  8. LeighB November 13, 2009 at 1:17 pm


    Glad to know you’re enjoying the Marfax! I have some in my pantry just waiting to get turned into baked beans. A good winter dish.

  9. Randy G November 14, 2009 at 9:25 am

    I am some old glad to see people growing and loving Marfax beans. I originally come from Downeast (Washington County) and grew up on these beans. Now I have a hard time finding them. My usual grower’s fields were inundated with rain early this year and he couldn’t grow his usual crop. I came on here looking for a place to buy some (75 pounds) and stumbled on to this delightful site. This is most heart warming.

  10. LeighB November 16, 2009 at 10:27 am

    When my colleague was researching heirloom beans over the summer she found a source in South Hamilton, MA, called Baer’s Best Beans. You might want to look them up, also Sparrow Arc Farm in Unity, ME might grow them.

    Thanks for reading!


  11. Holly Perry January 9, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    This is exciting! I thought Maine was the only place that had marfax beans….actually Washington County …we can’t buy them anywhere else…you’ve encouraged me to grow some next spring.

  12. Sylvia D April 5, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Can you tell me whether you think the Marfax could be grown in northern California? Also, any other good recipes other than baked beans?

  13. Evelyne Follette October 25, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Very informative article with many interesting ideas! I can’t say that I totally agree with all that you have written here, but there are a few relevant information you have emphasized that can be quite useful on gardening and related topics. Please continue offering more ideas on this topic and related subjects, as there are many out there like me who are attempting to understand the pluses and minuses.

  14. Dale Schevenieus October 31, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    I grow and sell marafaxs . I was in the store business ans sold 100s of Qts. every year .Now it is a hoby. My wife really knows how to bake them . Traditionally Sat. in washinton County was bean night with Biscuits or yeast rolls , homeade Pickles I have beans to sell now but they are going fast .It was well known that marafaxa were orimerilly consumed in wesrtern Washinton county back in the 50s and 60s .I just plain love them . Dale

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