The legendary fava bean has inspired both desire and dread. Some think it brings good luck and health, but according to folklore, the tasty legume is nothing but bad news.
PERHAPS NO OTHER vegetable has inspired as much dread and desire as the fava bean. Over time, some have thought favas bring good luck, bad luck, health and abundance, or death and destruction. Who would have thought the tiny delicacy gracing early-summer menus has such a controversial past, full of legends and folklore?
Today favas enjoy nothing short of a cult following, judging from their prevalence in restaurants and from the squeals at farmers markets when fresh beans are in. Prized for their rich and nutty flavor, the beans are high in protein, iron and other minerals. The tall, bushy stalks produce white and black flowers as intricate as miniature orchids. The oval beans are well-loved in risotto, pasta and salads or on crostini as a spread. But new this legume is not.
The fava, or broad, bean is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world, a longtime staple in Asia, Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Throughout history people have eaten favas — and feared them. Ancient cultures believed the bean possessed a supernatural force that could be beneficial or harmful, according to “Food and Evolution: Toward a Theory of Human Food.” Classical literature associated them with death.
One of the most famous fava critics in history was the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras. In the 6th century B.C., Pythagoras hated the beans and forbade his followers from eating them. Whether he believed the beans were toxic, erotic, flatulence-inducing or dirty because they were used to cast votes, he avoided them at all costs. According to legend, he was killed in an ambush when he refused to run into a fava field to flee attackers.
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Scholars debate whether Pythagoras had a genetic enzyme deficiency that can cause a reaction after taking certain medications or eating fava beans. This disorder, which in some cases can cause illness or death, is believed to affect some 400 million people worldwide, mostly men.
Despite the potential ills, the bean’s popularity seems to have risen in the Middle Ages, when it is said famine-stricken Sicilians prayed to Saint Joseph for food and rain and were able to survive in part because of hearty, resilient fava beans. Ever since, it has been considered a lucky bean, especially among Italians and Italian descendants, some of whom continue the traditional practice of placing favas on altars on Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19.
The king cake associated with Mardi Gras and the Christian celebration of Epiphany is sometimes made with a fava bean or small figurine hidden inside. According to tradition, whoever finds the object inside the cake (called a galette des rois in France, roscón de reyes in Spain and rosca de reyes in Latin America) could be ruler for the day.
Although favas are venerated for their luck and their taste, there remains one source of dread about which everyone can agree: They are time-consuming to peel. After removing the beans from the pod, individual skins are generally removed from each bean. For this reason, many people shy away from preparing fava beans at home.
“People are sometimes intimidated by the double peel,” says Jessica Bitting, Food Hub Manager at Seattle Tilth. Instead of peeling them, she recommends throwing the pods right on the grill. By using young favas, grilling will render the pod soft and tender while steaming the beans inside.
Bitting likes to toss them in olive oil, flaky salt, cracked pepper and lemon juice, then char them on the grill. “They are unbelievably good,” she says. “How many other beans can you throw on the grill? It’s life-changing.”
Lucky or unlucky, they’re delicious.