Family gatherings can be tricky things to navigate any time, but they get a tad riskier and fraught with danger at this time of year. Why is that?

At a recent Thanksgiving get-together, it was decided, for obvious reasons, that we wouldn’t rehash the recent elections and referendums. We also decided to avoid those “who eats what and why” questions that occasionally come up at family events, since the family now includes in-laws who have strong dietary beliefs best left off the table, so to speak, when it comes to dinner conversation.

So what did we talk about? Out of desperation, we started talking about a succotash dish making the rounds of the table. You’re right. We were so determined to avoid the “hot button” issues so we gladly jumped on the topic of “succotash” and rode it for all it was worth.

As it turns out, the dish that kept our dinner from being conversation-free was called Autumn Succotash, made with corn, green onions, tomatoes and lima beans. My wife, Ann, said she made the dish because the picture in the cookbook looked so colorful. The only thing in the dish she didn’t like were the lima beans. But she threw them in any way, to complete the festive color scheme.

It was soon established at the table that no one present liked lima beans – no one. Here were people who had all kinds of differences on religion and politics and global warming, but all agreed that they never, ever, liked those little, flat, green beans.

When I got home from the gathering, I just had to Google lima beans to learn a little more about this universally despised legume that at least provided us with a dinner topic.

I learned that lima beans originated in Peru, and have been cultivated there since 6,000 B.C. Their common name comes from Lima, Peru’s capital city. So why don’t we call them LEE-ma beans? Google was silent on that point.

But I also learned that lima beans contain cyanide compounds, and that’s why many countries, including the United States, restrict lima bean varieties to those with low cyanide levels.

How about we stop growing them all together? What’s wrong with that, huh?

An article online said the lima beans grown in Java and Burma have 20 to 30 times the concentration of cyanide allowed in most Western countries. Why would anyone grow something like that? Who sets out to grow unpleasant-tasting beans that contain cyanide – a highly toxic substance?

After taking the trouble to grow the wretched beans, with the high concentrations of cyanide, they have to be cooked thoroughly before eaten. Why? To allow the hydrogen cyanide gas produced to be cooked off.

Have these lima bean growers ever thought of just getting cans of B&M baked beans? You open the can, heat and serve. No lousy taste, no deadly cyanide – just universally liked baked beans.

But back to the deadly lima bean. Let’s review and see if we’ve got this straight. Here’s a legume that just about everyone on the planet dislikes, it just happens to contain cyanide and yet it’s been cultivated and consumed our planet for more than 8,000 years.

But don’t forget – they do add color to your succotash and sparkle to your dinner conversation.

John McDonald is the author of five books on Maine, including “John McDonald’s Maine Trivia: A User’s Guide to Useless Information.” Contact him at m[email protected].

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.