As long as the earth remains, there will
be planting and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night.”
— Genesis 8:22
On a Hutterite colony, typically one couple is in charge of the vegetable garden. They’re the ones who decide what will be planted, when the garden needs weeding or produce is ready to be picked.
For these tasks, the women’s work group and sometimes the men and older children will help as well. When it’s a smaller task, like digging a few boxes of carrots for the kitchen, the gardener couple will do it with a few Dienen, young women.
I have many happy memories of helping Josh Vetter and Kate Basel, my aunt and uncle, when they were the gardeners at our colony. One memorable autumn task for me is ‘fasielen dreschn,’ harvesting dry beans. We had combines, of course, but unlike today’s gardeners, Josh Vetter preferred the old way.
“Girls, you can start pulling out the bean plants,” Kate Basel announced when we arrived at the garden. “Posst ober auf! Se sein zimblich truckn. Be careful they’re very dry.” The sun-dried, brittle beans sang their crackly harvest song as we worked.
Using pitchforks, we placed the plants on one half of a huge tarp, then pulled the other half on top of the plants, completely covering them. With his little garden tractor, Josh Vetter drove back and forth on the tarp a few times. This broke the pods, so the beans fell out. After that, the tarp was lifted, the plants thrown out and the beans, plus a lot of plant bits and dirt poured into a huge container.
“Who needs a combine, when we can thresh like this?” Josh Vetter quipped from his perch on his Farmall A. “Geat’s nit guet?” I agreed with my uncle, it was fun, because it was like stepping back into pioneer days.
Finally, it was time for the wind winnowing process, to separate the beans from the dirt. Kate Basel filled a dipper, held it high over a tub and slowly emptied it. The beans fell into the tub, while the chaff was blown away by the breeze. If there wasn’t any wind that day, a large fan worked just as well.
Much as I enjoyed this process every September, the beans were of no significance to me. I didn’t enjoy eating them and certainly wasn’t aware that there was anything special about the variety we grew back then. I probably didn’t even know that there were numerous varieties. These beans were pale green with a distinct black rim around the eye. The ones we grow now are white and smaller in size. For the most part, we cook the beans and serve them with sausages. Leftovers become pork and beans to be served with the fries at supper, or soup the next day.
These bean memories were reawakened recently when I read an article by Sandra Fisher, titled “Living Heirlooms,” in the Fayetteville Observer, an online Iowa newspaper that landed in my inbox via my Google Alerts “Hutterites” setting. The blurb that caught my attention read, “Seeds which have been preserved keep people in touch with their ancestry and help retain history. Imagine a variety of fruit or vegetable that was so important to a family’s history or homeland that they would bring it with them when they immigrated to America. Such is the case with Greek melons, which were introduced in the early 20th century when Greek immigrants settled in Utah, and Hutterite Soup Beans, which came to North America in the 1870s by virtue of Hutterite Christians fleeing persecution in Europe.”
Intrigued, I sent a message to the author. She didn’t know much more than she had in her article, but suggested I contact the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa. Upon researching via Google, I found a website that boasted: “Hutterite Soup Beans make a soup unlike any other bean.” Other websites described the soup from these beans as “rich, delicious and creamy,” and also have their origin in the bean’s description.
Some, however, express doubt that the bean was brought to America by Hutterites in the 1870s, since there is evidence of these beans being in North America before that. William Woys Weaver, an internationally known food historian, believes the bean is a Russian variety, known as China Yellow, and that, “The Hutterites could indeed, have brought the bean with them to Canada and the Dakotas.” The original strain was called Lemon Yellow, which “may indicate some crossing with a white variety, sometime in the past, perhaps to improve its quality as a soup bean.”
I asked other Hutterites whether they ever heard of the heirloom beans. Few knew anything about them or had only a vague memory. However, one gardener couple has been growing them for a number of years, after buying a package from the Seed Savers Exchange. They were told that the beans cannot be bought in bulk. Therefore, they save some of their beans every year for seed — for their own use and to share with others. They kindly offered me some. I plan to offer them to our vegetable gardeners, in the hopes that we’ll start growing Hutterite Soup Beans once again. Only this time, I know the story behind them.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, I was in awe that a late-19th-century Hutterite gardener had the faith and foresight — before crossing the Atlantic on the S.S. Hammonia — to tuck a bag of dry beans into his trunk.
Over 140 years later, they are featured on national seed catalogue pages as heirloom seeds — registered Hutterite Soup Beans!
Linda Maendel lives on a Hutterite colony in central Manitoba, and is author of the book The Hutterite Diaries.