Omníča Kačháŋ: Bean Winnowing

This is another waníyetu wičhóȟ’aŋ, or winter project. In a lot of ways, it’s pretty similar to corn winnowing (wagmíza kačháŋ).

After harvesting the last of the dry beans for the season, I bring them inside to finish drying out. I usually put them in a basket. (You have to be careful where you place them, though – unlike corn braids, which can hang high on a wall or a ceiling, a bean basket on a shelf can be an invitation for hungry mice.)

Beans dry out pretty quickly, so it’s not actually necessary to wait until winter to husk and winnow them. But in the fall, a time when harvests come in so quickly that I sometimes can’t keep up, this is one project that can be deferred to a less busy time, provided the beans are stored carefully, so they won’t mold or get eaten by the mice.

Once the beans have been separated from their dried-out pods, there will be some flakes of seed coat, as well as other random debris. The best way to separate this out from the beans is by winnowing. I do this by pouring the beans from one basket to another, outdoors, at a time when there is a light wind to carry away anything that’s lighter than a bean.

These two particular kinds of beans are actually two cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) varieties with very different histories. Cowpeas all originated in Africa, but these two took very different paths.

Winter is also a good time for telling stories, so I will tell the stories I know for these two seeds.

The dark gray one is called a Tetapeche cowpea. I got the seeds as a gift from Dusty Hintz, a farmer with the Experimental Farm Network in New Jersey. I’m not sure how long Dusty had them, but originally, he got his seeds from Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing the traditional indigenous food crops of the American Southwest. According to this organization’s website, they first encountered these cowpeas at a market in Sonora, Mexico. I’m not sure how many generations the people of Sonora have grown them, or how and when they arrived there from Africa, or where else they may have stopped along the way.

Although this bean is praised for its hardiness and ability to thrive where other species cannot grow, including a drought-hardiness and an adaptability to poor soil, most of the plants failed to thrive in my garden. However, I later found out that the patch of ground where I planted most of them may have been where the former inhabitant would dump mop-water filled with bleach and other chemicals. (Only a few sunflowers, an amazing plant species known for remediating contaminated soils, successfully grew in that spot.)

The white seed is a black-eyed pea called Fagiolina del Trasimeno which originates from Umbria, Italy. These seeds were a gift from my Italian-American seedkeeper friend Owen Taylor of True Love Seeds in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When he first put the seeds in my hand, I was charmed by their diminutive size (much smaller than the average cowpea) and their story.

These are a rare, threatened crop that has been recognized by Slow Food Italy as an important traditional food to conserve. I am not sure how long Owen has been growing them, but he is part of a movement of revitalize this cowpea. They are reputed to have an excellent flavor, but I’m not going to eat them – my goal at this point is to plant as many as I can, and build up to the point where I have enough to plant and share, and hopefully eventually, enough to try them. When you’re conserving a rare plant, even one that’s famous for its taste, actually getting to try eating it it is often pretty far down the list of priorities. Their leaves are also supposed to be a delicious pot-herb – but again, when my priority is to encourage seed production, I can’t justify eating the foliage. Maybe in a few years.

Although my 2-ounce bean harvest looks a bit pathetic, I started with probably a dozen seeds of each, so I’m doing pretty well. I’m not sure how long it’ll take to build up enough of a population that I can eat some, but I will report back when I do.

I suppose winnowing beans is not hugely important if you’re keeping them for seed, rather than food – but I winnowed my food beans, too, so why not?

From Africa to Europe and Mesoamerica, and from there to Arizona and Philadelphia and New Jersey and Minnesota, to my little garden on Standing Rock – these amazing little seeds are world travelers with incredible stories to tell. They landed in my hands, and in my garden, as a gift, but also a responsibility: to be part of the next generation of humans that continues the tradition of bringing forth the next generation of seeds. I had one season of success with these little ones, and hope we can continue this way in the future.

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