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Planting Beans in the Apocalypse

Alejandra Oliva  /  June 22, 2021  /  5 Min Read  /  Food

Finding ways to grow food and sow hope in a small apartment in Chicago.

Marcella, vaquero and black turtle beans from Rancho Gordo, an heirloom bean grower, on raw linen with cotton embroidery. Photo: Alejandra Oliva

I picked them up, like so many other people did, on a nervous run through a ransacked supermarket, when we thought we might have to stay indoors for two weeks. Five pounds of dried black beans, small and glossy and self-contained. Dense and nutritious. I rolled my eyes at myself as I paid for them, assuming that after these two weeks of panic were over, the beans would end up pushed to the back of my pantry shelf, slowly fished out to be turned into chili, arroz con frijoles, burrito bowls or whatever else I could come up with over the course of a year. I thought there was no way that the entire economy would collapse to the point that my entire diet consisted of beans and pastas and shelf-stable canned goods.

This ended up being true and not. My husband and I lost our senses of taste and smell that first week the world shut down. We assumed it was COVID-19, especially given the accompanying fevers and coughs, but couldn’t be sure—at that point there was basically no testing available. The fevers lifted relatively quickly, but we spent the following weeks suffering from anosmia, eating bowl after bowl of rice and beans not only because it was the only food we could get our hands on but also because it was cheap, full of fiber, protein and complex carbs, and at least somewhat texturally interesting.

I don’t remember where I got the idea to reach into the rapidly depleting 5-pound bag of beans to pluck one up and plant it, but sometime during that first week of lockdown, I pushed a seed into a cup of dirt, soaked it with water and started to wait.

I didn’t keep a journal through those first weeks of the pandemic, not wanting to believe that they would be anything but a blip in my memory later on. I do remember that, at least in Chicago, it was a bitingly cold, damp, grey March full of anxious late nights and emergency planning sessions devoid of color and smell. It seemed an eternity—weeks and then months—until the trees outside our second-floor windows even began to show signs of spring.

Beans are a beloved cultivar of the kindergarten classroom because they reward even short attention spans. Within a week or two, the smooth, slender U-shaped bend of my bean seedling’s neck could be seen poking above the dirt, and in twice that time, a set of fuzzy, slightly sticky heart-shaped leaves unfurled, shocking in their green color. A bright, perfect feast for the senses, even if many of my feasting senses were muted and dim.

Our apartment is on the second floor, and while the lighting is amazing, there’s not much room here for even a single cornstalk or the sprawling vines of a squash. Many of my windows are lined with houseplants, mostly tropical, broad-leaved specimens cajoled into surviving dim Chicago winters. My bean plant, which ended up being a bush and not the kind of vine usually grown to climb up a cornstalk, was the perfect size and shape for the space I had to accommodate it, and I spent hours over its combined lifetime staring at it, lifting up leaves to check for swelling bean pods and plucking off yellowing leaves.

Beans have been a staple in the Americas for thousands of years, predating European colonization. They formed one part of the Three Sisters method of agriculture, planted alongside corn and squash from the milpas of Mesoamerica to the fields of the Iroquois Confederacy, each plant using the others as support, nutrition and shade and each yielding a critical element in a human’s diet.

When Europeans arrived, they brought with them an apocalypse—diseases that decimated populations and violent genocides. Some survived, and there are still Indigenous peoples living in the vast majority of the places where the Three Sisters once grew. I can’t trace my own family back to Indigenous roots, but there’s no doubt that a great deal of the food that is important to me as a daughter of Mexican immigrants has its roots in Indigenous cooking—masa and pozole and long-cooking mole. Beans are, if not at the heart of our diet in the same way that corn is, then the ever-present side dish, always holding down its corner of the table.

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about the Three Sisters in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass. A scientist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi nation, she describes the web of mutuality created by these three crops, portraying them as a natural example of a structure people would do well to replicate in their own communities. In her telling, the Three Sisters first came to people during a time of difficulty, so it’s not surprising that I turned to them now.

Kimmerer closes the chapter on the Sisters with a scene from her annual Three Sisters potluck at the end of the harvest season, full of friends and feasting. Her picnic dinner feels as far from my socially isolated apartment during the pandemic as I can imagine. Nevertheless, as my bean plant grew, pushing out new leaves and eventually flowering, with delicate pink keel-shaped flowers, mutual aid societies sprang up around my neighborhood, city and country. I spent a while on the phone with a man trying to help him get prescriptions, helped coordinate grocery runs by others who had cars and watched friends take part in that same process of figuring out how to reach beyond themselves to neighbors they had not met, to fill needs that were not their own.

When, in the early summer, the pods of my bean bush turned the dusty purple that indicates ripeness and then dried on the vine, I plucked them, with a final total harvest of eight beans. No farmer would brag about this yield, but for me, it felt massive. The early months of the pandemic, with all their strangeness, paired with the need to do everything and the inability to do any of it had, in the end, led to this—a harvest I could hold in the palm of my hand and that was able to be replanted. A new growth amid the panic of the early pandemic. I mixed the eight beans I had harvested into the dregs of the 5-pound bag that begat their seed and ate them with my husband, in a chili we could actually taste.

The eight beans I grew were indistinguishable from any other bean we ate that night in late June. But it meant something that in our supper that night, there was a yield of care I was able to render at a time when it felt like I had very little to give—a connection to survival and endurance, and the promise of more growth, even in the darkest of winters.

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