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