From a handful of beans, a rich culinary-cultural heritage lives on

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ANGELO PELLEGRINI, fond of wearing basil as a boutonniere, was fonder still of the Italian bean he called “monachine.”

It grew like Jack’s beanstalk astride Northwest cedar poles and, like Pellegrini, aged well in its adopted country.

He always ate them slowly, mashing each brown-and-white orb with the tines of his fork, swiped through a smear of olive oil and brought to his mouth with a satisfied smile.

Those beans were sown each year in the garden of Pellegrini’s View Ridge home where, for nearly half a century, the Italian peasant boy — who’d become a renowned English professor and one of the great voices in American culinary literature — reaped what he sowed.

Watching him savor those beans, most of which spent the late summer gently drying on the vine, “is one of the great memories I have of my father,” says his son, Brent, the unwitting Johnny Appleseed of the “mona-KEEN-ay.”

Brent, now in his 60s, played in that Seattle garden as a child, tending it in his father’s declining years and for his mother, Virginia, after her husband’s death in 1991.

Today he cultivates the monachine — named for the “little nuns” of Italy whose white caps resembled their own — at his Washington Park home, where he’s transplanted his father’s prized cardoons and artichokes.

Those plants are well known to those of us who’ve eagerly devoured Angelo Pellegrini’s out-of-print classics, among them: “The Food-Lover’s Garden” (1970), “Lean Years, Happy Years” (1983) and “The Unprejudiced Palate” (1948), reissued in 2005 and still in print today.

People throw the word “heirloom” around a lot, but the monachine is truly that: a family heirloom passed from one hand to the next.

Angelo’s were a gift from his winemaker friend Robert Mondavi’s uncle. I got mine at The Herbfarm last fall, where Angelo Pellegrini Historic Beans dotted a plate of Snoqualmie Valley lamb. I left with a few dried pods in hand, their precious cargo destined for my spring garden.

The Herbfarm’s owner, Ron Zimmerman, got his from sustainable farming advocate Mark Musick, among a cadre of Vashon Islanders for whom the cult bean has long been a garden treasure.

In 2009, Herbfarm head gardener Bill Vingelen sowed 32 bean starts around two pole-bean teepees. “Our yield was fairly heavy,” he recalls of the sturdy, stringless cultivar, as appealing fresh as it is dried, “but we resisted the urge to eat them all.”

They saved 90 percent of the first harvest for seed, passing a handful each to a pair of other gardeners “just in case.”

By 2012 there was enough seed to plant 32 teepees at the five-acre Woodinville farm, enough to put Pellegrini’s beans on The Herbfarm menu and save for this year’s crop: more than 1,000 plants, set to be seeded May 15, a date favored by Angelo himself.

Those numbers are music to Mark Musick’s ears. “I know of no source for them other than hand-to-hand,” he says. Years ago, he sent a sample of the beans to the Organic Seed Alliance for evaluation. “They had nothing to compare it to.”

Musick gave that first handful to Zimmerman courtesy of Margaret Hoeffel — who planted her seeds more than a decade ago at a cooperative farm on Vashon. Hoeffel got hers from Brent’s high-school chum, Zoe Cheroke, who tasted her first arugula at Pellegrini’s table in the late ’60s and has been growing his little nuns on Vashon for more than 30 years.

The existence of the monachine, says Musick, “is not just plant genetics, it’s cultural genetics. It connects us back to Angelo Pellegrini, who connects us to Robert Mondavi, who connects us back to villages in Italy.

“All of that is embodied in those seeds.”

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times’ food writer. Reach her at Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.