I am reading, for the second time, a book called “Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them.” With expert research and fluent prose, BBC food journalist Dan Saladino outlines three dozen crops, animals and ethnically distinct prepared foods that are vanishing from the global food landscape. And he details the extraordinary efforts of the people who are trying to preserve them for future generations.

“Of the 6,000 plant species humans have eaten over time, the world now mostly eats just nine,” Saladino writes. This decimated biodiversity and the lack of dietary range is largely driven by the demand on farmers everywhere to produce crops on an epically large scale, which pushes them to grow huge amounts of a very limited number of crops. The unintended outcome of this effort to grow more food to feed the world is a nutritional and cultural depletion that spans the globe.

Chapter by chapter, Saladino explains how unique, useful foods from the past have been neglected in favor of modern varieties. An emmer wheat called kavilca is more nutritious than 95% of the bread wheat on the market today and has both structural and genetic qualities that help it fend off historical head blight fungus and new-fangled diseases like wheat blast that are decimating crops around the world. But today only a few farmers in Turkey cultivate it. Wild memang narang (a citrus fruit) in India was bred to be free of bitter-tasting phenols, the very compounds that make it both healthier for humans and better able to ward off pests and disease without chemical pesticides. In China, red glutinous rice was cast off for higher-yielding white varieties, but white rice paddies produce huge amounts of atmospheric methane that hasten climate change.

In each case, Saladino, writes about the foragers, farmers and/or traditional food artisans working desperately to preserve these nearly extinct nourishments. (A 2012 book by Mainer David Buchanan, “Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods and Why They Matter,” covers similar territory.)

As I read (and now reread) Saladino’s book, I wondered what foods from this part of the world need to be saved for future generations to consume. According to Slow Food International’s Arc of Taste, a database of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction, there are a few.

Sturgeon have been decimated by pollution, overharvesting in the 19th century and dams that block rivers where they historically spawned. Today, it is illegal to fish for, catch, or keep sturgeon. The American Butternut tree, also referred to as a white walnut, is a slow-growing shade tree that produces a sweet, buttery-flavored nut with incredibly high protein value. For 50 years, the Northeast population of butternut has been decimated by a fungus most likely introduced from outside of North America.

Advertisement

While we cooks can’t do much to champion those two threatened food sources, we can do something about the third one: Jacob’s Cattle beans. Also known as the trout bean – because the white and reddish-brown skin on this plump kidney bean resembles the coloring of both Hereford cattle and brown trout – it was first cultivated by indigenous people in what is now the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada.

“The history of Jacob’s Cattle (like so many heirlooms) is difficult to verify, and many details have been lost to time,” says Paul Pollaro, who does sales and marketing at Maine Grains and Heritage Seed Restoration with the Maine Grain Alliance. Skowhegan-based Maine Grains sells a variety of dried beans grown in rotation with wheat crops by local farmers to help enrich the soil over time. The most accepted origin story, Pollaro said, is that they were first cultivated by the Passamaquoddy, who in the 1600s gave seeds to Joseph Clark, the first Caucasian child born in Lubec.

Since then, the distribution and consumption of Jacob’s Cattle beans have largely remained confined to Maine and Prince Edward Island in Canada, where they are generally served as baked beans.

The modern local champion of this bean – and almost 1,200 other bean varieties he collected from the 1960s through the 1990s and then donated to the national Seed Savers Exchange program – was John Withee. Born in Portland in 1910, Withee was the son of a grocer who fed John and his siblings beans every day in winter. John’s favorite bean was the Jacob’s Cattle, and it was his subsequent effort to find it, while living with his own young family in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, that got him started as a collector. If you want to grow them in your garden, Fedco Seeds sells the seeds.

Today, mature dried beans for eating can be sourced directly from small producers like Fairwinds Farm in Bowdoinham, bought at Hannaford under the State of Maine Beans label, or purchased from outlets that champion heirloom bean varieties like Maine Grains and Eureka Farms in Palmyra.

“Jacob’s Cattle is a fine eating bean,” said Hollis Edwards, who owns Eureka Farms with his son, Seth. Its fruity, rich, nutty flavor holds up to heavy seasoning, while its dense, meaty texture means it holds its shape despite the long cooking times required for baked beans, soups and stews. Its medium size is also attractive to eaters, Edwards said – larger than a soldier bean, smaller than a kidney. Jacob’s Cattle beans are renowned for their aroma, which gets unlocked during low, slow cooking. The water used to soak and cook the beans – the ‘pot liquor’ – is often enjoyed in the same spoon as the cooked beans.

Advertisement

Edwards said that as Mainers branch out to try more varieties of dried beans, Jacob’s Cattle beans have become Eureka Farms’ third best seller, behind Marfax (No. 1) and Yellow Eyed (No. 2) beans. Now is the time to run out and get them, as local farmers are just starting to release the Jacob’s Cattle beans they grew this summer and dried in September.

Buying more Jacob’s Cattle beans will create more demand, encouraging more farmers to grow them, in turn adding more bean biodiversity into the state. If that doesn’t give you enough reason to buy them, then cook with them, and you’ll be convinced. Try them in your favorite Saturday night baked beans recipe or expand your weeknight bean repertoire with this braised chicken thigh dish.

Scatter torn kale, in this case baby kale from Whatley Farm in Topsham, over the braising chicken and beans, then continue to simmer until the chicken is cooked through. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Braised Chicken with Beans and Kale

This recipe requires cooked beans. Make a pot on Sunday and eat them all week long in dishes like this one, and in any salads and soups in need of added local protein. While the standard serving of bone-in chicken thighs is generally two, I reduce it to one as the beans have a meaty, high-protein profile as well, which helps eaters feel sated.

Serves 4

Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
4 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs or quarters, or 8 drumsticks
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped carrots
1/4 cup thinly sliced garlic
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
2 bay leaves
2-3 cups chicken stock
2 cups cooked beans
4 cups torn kale
Crusty bread for serving

Advertisement

In a small bowl, combine 1 tablespoon of salt with the cumin, coriander, and black and Aleppo pepper. Rub the spice mixture all over all sides of the chicken.

Add the oil to a large skillet over medium high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the chicken, skin-side down. Cook, untouched, until the skin browns and releases easily from the pan, about 6 minutes. Turn the chicken over and cook 3 more minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate.

Turn the heat down to medium, add the onions and carrots to the now empty pan, and sauté until the onions are translucent, 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes more. Stir the tomato paste into the vegetables and continues to cook the mixture for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the wine and bay leaves, stir well, and cook to reduce the liquid by half, 2-3 minutes. Add 2 cups of broth and the cooked beans and simmer for 5 minutes.

Nestle the chicken, skin-side up, into the braising liquid. The chicken should be submerged in the liquid about two-thirds of its height. If the level is too low, add more chicken stock. Scatter the kale over the top of the chicken, cover and cook until the chicken is cooked through to 165 degrees. Serve in warm, shallow bowls with crusty bread to soak up the sauce.

Local foods advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the editor of Edible Maine magazine and the author of “Green Plate Special,” both a column about eating sustainably in the Portland Press Herald and the name of her 2017 cookbook. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Braised Chicken with Beans and Kale is made with heirloom Jacob’s Cattle Beans. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. 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.