Before the convenience of mail-order seed catalogs, gardeners set aside a portion of their best-growing seeds for the following year's crop. These antique varieties were handed down across generations, hence the term "heirloom."
How to Use
Use heirloom beans as you would more common varieties in your recipes, mixing and matching to your heart's desire. Some cooks choose varieties as much for appearance as flavor. You can use the many intricate patterns and colors like paint on a canvas, turning your dinner plate into an artful presentation.
How to Buy
There are literally dozens of varieties of beans with exotic-sounding names. Here are a few favorites:
Appaloosa beans are so named for their resemblance to the mottled pony you often see in old Westerns--and appropriately so, for they're great in southwestern dishes.
Black Turtle beans are tiny, jet-black beauties common in Caribbean and Latin-American soups and side dishes.
Jackson Wonder beans have a pedigree, tracing their lovely buff and purplish brown exterior all the way back to Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1880s.
Rattlesnake beans coil around the garden stake as they grow, not unlike a curling serpent. They have a nice bite when baked. These are only a few of the dozens of heirloom bean varieties, some easier to find than others.
Many gourmet shops and health-food stores carry packaged dry beans. There are mail-order sources, too.
In the past 100 years or so, many of these heirloom varieties have been, through lack of cultivation, almost lost. Some growers estimate that only 20 percent of antique produce varieties are still around today. Happily, as more cooks discover the colorfully creative ways to use these beans in the kitchen, heirloom beans are staging a comeback.