A Bean’s Deep Roots in the East Bay
By Carrie Spector
I’m at Luso Mercado. The shop is easy to miss among the fast-food outlets on a busy stretch of East 14th Street in San Leandro, but this small market is holding fast to the East Bay’s Portuguese heritage.
A couple of elderly men sit on stools at a counter near the register with their coffee. They’re trading stories in Portuguese. Imported wines and cans of fish line the shelves. A deli case is filled with stacks of linguiça and chorizo.
And then there are the fava beans. Dried, frozen, canned—even skinny jars of “fava nuts,” roasted and salted for snacks.
“In the old country, everybody grew fava beans,” says Abilio Trigo, a Portuguese immigrant who owns and runs the shop with his wife, Edite.
“It’s part of us,” Edite adds emphatically, touching her heart. “It’s our culture.”
Serafim Pimental, a 91-year-old customer who’s been coming to Luso Mercado for years, tells me he grew up growing fava beans on a dairy farm in the Azores. He kept up the tradition in his San Leandro backyard for decades, saving seeds each season for the next. His granddaughter, Alicia, drove him over today so he could have an espresso and visit with his friends. He talks about the giant buckets of beans he would harvest and freeze each year with his family’s help.
Alicia points out that he only stopped doing this three or four years ago.
Memories of San Leandro’s agricultural legacy often call up the cherry orchards and chicken farms that once sprawled across the land. But fava, while uncelebrated, might be just as important, largely thanks to the Portuguese farmers who came to California in droves during the Gold Rush. These settlers found cheap, fertile land and warm temperatures along the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, and by the early 20th century they made up more than two-thirds of San Leandro’s population.
Fava beans (also called broad, horse, pigeon, Windsor, or English beans) are known to have been important in agriculture since the beginning of recorded history, and many cultures have embraced them as their own: you’ll find them on the menu this time of year at Greek, Italian, and Spanish restaurants all over the Bay Area.
But these beans have a special claim in the heart of the Portuguese. They’re even invoked in a common Portuguese insult: “Vai à fava”—literally “Go to the fava bean,” which really means “Get lost!”
“When I was young there was hardly a Portuguese family that did not grow favas,” wrote the late August Mark Vaz, who was born in Hayward and coauthored Cooking with a Portuguese Flavor with his wife, Elizabeth. “It was kind of a trademark: where favas grew, there you would find Portuguese.”
Their houses were easy to spot, with front and side gardens filled with fava plants. Paging through Meg Rogers’s book The Portuguese in San Leandro, I came across this century-old photo of a farmer standing proudly in front of his home, rows of fava beans growing tall in the front yard. (Photo courtesy of San Leandro Historical Photograph and Document Collection #2211)
For these immigrant farmers, the beans were more than a cultural touchstone. With limited space in their new digs, these farmers appreciated a cool-season crop known for producing—as home gardeners today might wearily attest—a tremendous yield in very little space.
Abundance is a beautiful thing. But pity the prep cook: it takes careful work and patience to get just a small pile of delicate beans from pounds of these knobby pods. Fava lovers are a virtuous lot.
Kevin Coelho runs HGC Imports, a Portuguese food and beverage distributor that supplies East Bay markets such as Luso Mercado and Hayward’s Silva Bakery. He remembers his immigrant father putting the kids to work shelling the beans in their backyard. “We used to have two big buckets: we’d sit in one with the beans, and cast the pods off into another,” Coelho recalls.
Typically, preparing a batch of fresh fava beans is a three-stage affair: shell, parboil, and husk. Split the pods open and you’ll find a row of beans nestled in a spongy lining. Parboil those beans for just a couple of minutes and drain; then slip off their light-green skin, which is usually bitter. (For what it’s worth, aforementioned Serafim Pimental tells me he doesn’t bother: “It makes you strong,” he says with a grin.) And don’t forget the leaves: you can cook the tender greens or add them raw to salads.
As laborious as the beans are to prepare, they’re simple to grow—plant them in late fall and if you’re lucky, the rain will pretty much take it from there. Growing them yourself has a real draw, not just for easy access to those greens, but for what they can do for your soil. An ideal cover crop, fava plants “fix” nitrogen, collecting the nutrient from the air and feeding it into the earth through little sacs attached to their roots. Chop and dig some young stalks under before the beans show up, and you’ll build up your soil each winter.
It’s important to note that some people of Mediterranean descent have a medical condition called favism, in which case contact with fava beans can essentially trigger anemia. It’s rare, but if you suspect you might have it, a blood test can judge.
Otherwise, spring is the season to indulge. Here in the East Bay you can find the greens and beans in farmers’ markets from now until June. Snap them up by the bagful, and get to work.
Carrie Spector is a writer and editor living in San Leandro. Her work has appeared in magazines including Mother Jones, California Lawyer, and Rolling Stone. You can reach her through her website at www.carriespector.com.