The Secret Life of Beans: The Surprising History Behind Popular Foods

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In The Departed, Billy Costigan paraphrases Nathaniel Hawthorne and says, “Families are always rising and falling in America.” The 2006 film portrays the dramatic double lives of two main characters—a true case study in deception and buried secrets. But would you believe it if you heard that such duplicity could come from beans? Or tomatoes? Would you want to know what shady depths burgers rose from to become an unquestioned staple of American cuisine?


The truth is you may not know much about the dubious pasts of certain foods. Oysters were once considered prison food. Coffee has been banned multiple times throughout history. Beans…well, they have the darkest history of all.

So keep your forks close and your spatulas closer as Urbo takes you undercover into the checkered pasts of some of your favorite foods.

Prison Oysters and Low-Class Lobsters

Oysters hold a special place along the coasts (and across the country) as a fun, delectable bar snack and appetizer. New Orleans chef Jules Alciatore even elevated oysters to a new level of sophistication with his famous Oysters Rockefeller. But, like many names associated with huge wealth, oysters have not always been held in such high esteem.


When colonists first came to North America, oysters were plentiful and larger in size. For insight, Urbo spoke with Liz Williams, the founder and president of the National Food & Beverage Foundation and Southern Food & Beverage Museum. Williams explains that the high number of oysters meant they were cheap food.

“Laborers were given oysters,” she says. “Prisoners could be given oysters. And it got to a point where people were like, ‘I do not want to even look at another oyster again.’” In short, oysters became the colonial equivalent of school cafeteria chicken nuggets.


Oysters’ stint as food for the masses would not last long, however. As populations increased along the east coast, the oyster population dwindled thanks to overharvesting and pollution. The scarcity has made this slippery snack a sought-after commodity.

“Oysters are so expensive now that you [pay] for them by the oyster,” explains Williams. At no restaurant will you order oysters and just get a big pile of them—you’ll always know how many you’ll get. And harvesters can’t just reach into the ocean for a fistful of fresh oysters; many oysters now come from oyster farms.


Another seafood delicacy that hasn’t always been held in the highest regard is now the most prestigious of almost any menu: the lobster. The pinchy crustacean used to dominate the shores of New England around the 1700s, reportedly piling up in mounds up to two feet high along beaches.

“When everybody could get lobsters because they were so plentiful, nobody really valued lobsters,” Williams says.

Like oysters, lobsters were considered low-cost protein and were eaten by only the poorest colonists and servants, who eventually put up a fight and demanded they only be fed lobster two or three times a week.


The tide finally turned for the lobster after the Civil War. During the conflict, canned lobster was a staple for troops, and interest in lobster meat began to rise in the boom years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Chefs also began to prepare lobster differently—mostly by cooking it alive—allowing patrons to enjoy a fresher and tastier version of the dish that was once seen as the “cockroach of the sea.” Now, lobster is so highly regarded, it even has its own dedicated bib so the fancy folks eating it don’t spill anything on their nice clothes.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

Sure, being considered peasant food is bad enough, but even the lobster never had to face the firestorm that tomatoes faced. When the North American vegetable was first introduced to Europe, it quickly became demonized as poisonous.


Tim J. Myers is the author of Rude Dude’s Book of Food and has researched some of the crazier backstories of our everyday diet. Myers reveals that one of the greatest shifts in food history was the European colonization of North America.

“All these new foods—peanuts and chilies and tomatoes, potatoes, and corn—all came out of the New World,” he says. This bounty of the earth was excitedly brought back to the European continent, but the tomato instantly got a bad rap.


Myers says tomatoes were originally called “golden apples” because they had more of a yellow hue than they do today (the result of selective growing over the years). These harmless veggies were cast out of European kitchens and into flower beds.

“They used them for decoration in gardens because they thought they were poisonous,” he explains.


So why did tomatoes originally get a reputation worse than that created by certain George Clooney movies? Apparently, the upper classes in Europe used to dine on pewter plates, which contained lead. Due to their acidity, tomatoes absorbed lead from the plates, so they actually did cause illness and death among some of Europe’s elite. The poor, meanwhile, had no beef with the tomato because they used wooden plates.


The tomato’s fortunes began to turn around when pizza became a popular dish in Italy and later America. Its poisonous past behind it, the tomato has been free to enjoy a cozy position among the world’s most famous foods.

“There’s almost an artisanal air to them now,” Myers says, noting special, sought-after varieties like sun-dried tomatoes.

Coffee That’s Too Hot to Handle

As illustrated by the splat with which tomatoes hit Europe, new foods and changes in food can have profound cultural effects.

“Food is constantly reflecting changes in culture,” Williams says.

Perhaps no food had such a cultural effect as the little bean that packs an energy punch and still keeps America running to this day.

“If you want to talk about culture,” says Williams, “you can talk about how coffee changed the world.”


That’s a mighty claim, but there’s little doubt that coffee’s introduction to Europe woke up some on the continent while leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of others. Historians have found many examples of coffee being banned for supposedly harmful effects, when in reality governments simply did not like the community gathering and independent thought that would incubate in coffee houses across Europe and the Middle East.


Williams reveals one of java’s more licentious effects: “People thought if you drank coffee that you would be sexually promiscuous.”

A steaming cup of joe had a nasty little habit of getting banned across Europe for all matter of health reasons. One English Lord pleaded with subjects to avoid the romance of coffeehouses in order to stop the spread of the plague, but such requests were futile against the sultry siren call of a hot, fresh cup.

The Lowly Hamburger

Cultural perceptions have a tremendous effect on the foods we eat. Take, for example, the burger—a classic American staple that can run the gamut from family-friendly dinners to gourmet meals.

Myers shares that, according to legend, an early version of the hamburger came from Mongol warriors who rode all day with thin strips of meat under their saddles. The riders would later consume the flat, flavored, and tenderized steaks.

There’s still some doubt surrounding the burger’s origin as part of Genghis Khan’s army, but there’s little question that the hamburger had a humble beginning in roadside stands from Wisconsin to Connecticut before making a splash at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

Joe Haupt/Flickr

“The burger had low social status because it was seen as street food,” Myers says.

The hamburger, and beef in general, would fall dramatically out of favor when Upton Sinclair unleashed his meat-packing horror story The Jungle on the public, which turned stomachs with graphic descriptions of unsanitary conditions in the meat-packing plants of Chicago.

Eventually, the American public fell back in love with its juicy destiny, an affair helped along by squeaky-clean chains from the likes of McDonald’s and others. And now, as Myers points out, the “lowly hamburger” has gone full luxe.

Bruce Marlin (via Wikimedia Commons)

From crude origins in the old world and Hamburg, Germany, the burger traveled to America and, after a rocky start, is now offered at some of the nation’s best fine-dining establishments, he says. In fact, there’s a whole list of the best gourmet burgers in New York City, and the Fleur restaurant at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas offers a heart attack–inducing $5,000 burger.

Whether they came from a roadside stand in Wisconsin or the ranks of the Mongol army, burgers have been the clear beneficiary of a cultural perception shift.


Williams says many foods can experience a rise or fall thanks to a number of factors: “It could be technology or accessibility or other things where you just take time to cook it better.”

A recent example of this is the meteoric rise of brussels sprouts now that chefs have begun roasting them rather than boiling them into banality. If brussels sprouts can find salvation, perhaps even the most detestable food can build itself a better tomorrow.

Beans: Delicious Side Dish or Harbinger of Death?

For all the poison tomatoes or reviled lobsters, there’s probably no food item that has as checkered and morbid a history as the bean. Beans have endured a cultural perception problem going back thousands of years because of their longstanding association with death and the underworld.

The master of triangular geometry, Pythagoras, had a revulsion to beans and demanded they be banned. In writing about Pythagoras and his bean-phobia, philosopher Aristotle suggested a number of reasons why Pythagoras had it out for beans, from their association with the Gates of Hades, to their resemblance to certain parts of the human anatomy, to their association with government (as beans were used to vote in ancient Greece).

image Starus

There’s a story that when Pythagoras was fleeing for his life, he refused to run into a field of fava beans, thus allowing himself to be captured and face certain death. Some scholars suggest Pythagoras may have had favism, a genetic disease that carries with it a potentially deadly allergy to types of pollen and glucose found in fava beans.

It wasn’t just Pythagoras who took issue with the bean, however. In ancient Rome, the texture of beans called to mind human flesh, and priests were forbidden from eating them, a perception shared by the Greeks and Egyptians. Even the classic association of beans with gastrointestinal issues played a role in the supernatural perception of beans—because beans could make one break wind, they were presumed to be full of air, life, and essentially people’s souls.


Say what you want about tomatoes or brussels sprouts, but nobody ever accused them of harboring the physical manifestation of human consciousness.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to know which foods you can trust. Standards are always changing, and new health studies constantly shift our ideas about food and health. As Lewis Black once proved with a simple question—“Is milk good or bad?”—our perceptions of certain foods are almost entirely shaped by the time and culture in which we live.

Williams lists the different inventions that have changed our diets over the years: canning, refrigerated trucks and rail cars, and the development of frozen food.


“Everything changes the way we eat,” she declares.

So it could be said that foods are always rising and falling in America. Can any food really be considered good or bad? Maybe what looking back on history tells us is, when you’re facing an empty stomach…what’s the difference?

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