On May 15, 2013, more than 1,000 heirloom beans, called monachine ("little nuns") in Italian because of the bean's distinctive white cap, are set to be planted in the culinary garden of The Herbfarm restaurant in Woodinville in eastern King County. That was the sowing date favored by culinary expert, author, and English professor Angelo Pellegrini (1903-1991), who considered May 15 the last frost date of the season in the Seattle area. For four decades before his death, Pellegrini had single-handedly propagated the heirloom beans -- now commonly known as Pellegrini beans -- in the garden of his Seattle home.
Journey to Woodinville
The monachine's journey to Woodinville had been many decades in the making. In the mid-twentieth century, a handful of the beans traveled across the ocean from Italy to California and into the hands of vintner Robert Mondavi (1913-2008), a gift from his uncle in Italy. In the 1950s, Mondavi gave a few of the beans to Angelo Pellegrini to plant in his 1,500-square-foot garden in Seattle. A popular teacher at the University of Washington for many years, Pellegrini immigrated from Italy at age 10 and grew up in rural Grays Harbor County before embarking on a distinguished academic career -- and winning even more renown for his garden, his cooking, his wine cellar, and ultimately his influential writing about food and culture.
For more than 40 years, Pellegrini cultivated, propagated, and enjoyed these little beans, and his careful attention enabled them to become perfectly adapted to the growing conditions of the Pacific Northwest. As Pellegrini neared the end of his life, his son Brent helped keep up the family garden. After both his parents died, Brent transplanted some of his father's prized seeds, including the monachine, to his own home garden, lavishing each plant with care.
In the fall of 2008, Brent Pellegrini gave some beans to The Herbfarm's owner, Ron Zimmerman, who arranged to have the beans planted the following spring in the five-acre culinary garden of the acclaimed Woodinville restaurant. Established in 1986, The Herbfarm had gained a reputation for outstanding regional food and wine -- Angelo Pellegrini visited soon after it opened, in the company of several famous chefs, and deemed it "pretty good," according to the restaurant's website ("The Pellegrini Bean").
Being able to trace a "family lineage" is the very definition of an heirloom vegetable -- an old-time variety saved and handed down through multiple generations of families. Today, thanks to Angelo Pellegrini's careful nurturing and passion for this heirloom bean, the monachine is popularly known as the Pellegrini bean, and its taste and texture are unparalleled. It can be eaten either fresh or dried. Fresh, it's a delicious and stringless yellow-green bean. When dried, its small, round bi-colored orbs have a creamy, earthy taste.
In 2009, Herbfarm head gardener Bill Vingelen planted bean starts around two beanpole "teepees." At the end of the season, Vingelen harvested and dried the beans, saving about 90 percent of the first year's harvest to plant the following year. He told The Seattle Times, "Our yield was fairly heavy ...but we resisted the urge to eat them all" (Leson). A few beans were given to the other gardeners at The Herbfarm for safekeeping, just in case. Three years later, the harvest had expanded sufficiently that in 2012 Vingelen was able to plant 32 tepees to support about 1,000 plants.
Restaurant owner Ron Zimmerman recalled:
"We didn't feel we had 'commercial-sized' quantities until 2013, though we had served some the previous year, and, perhaps, a drib and drab before that. It was from 2013 onward that we were able to feature this incredible bean on our menus [with] some frequency" (Zimmerman email).
A Culinary Icon and a Unique Bean
A culinary icon in the Northwest, Angelo Pellegrini was famous for his bountiful home garden filled with all types of vegetables, herbs, and berries. His garden was so lush that Sunset magazine sent a photographer to visually record it, season by season, over the course of a year. Zimmerman explained:
"Since Dr. Pellegrini grew, harvested and regrew the beans for over 40 years, the bean has become adapted to the Seattle-area climate. It is effectively a 'landrace.' ... We carefully hand-select beans each year as seed for next year's planting. We also keep a 2 'vintage' backstock, should the bean ever hybridize with another" (Zimmerman email).
Years ago, to test the genetics of the Pellegrini bean, Northwest food pioneer and sustainable-agriculture promoter Mark Musick sent a sample of the beans to the Organic Seed Alliance for analysis. The lab reported back that there was nothing to compare them to. The beans embodied their own distinct heritage.
In Lean Years, Happy Years, one of his many books about food, wine, and the immigrant experience, Pellegrini wrote at length about the benefits of growing one's own food. He insisted that no special talent or competence was needed to produce a successful kitchen garden, and he encouraged his readers to roll up their sleeves, pick up a hoe or shovel, and dig in!
He loved home-grown produce for not only its taste and esthetic quality but also its economic value. In 1982, Pellegrini made the following financial assessment of a crop of beans:
"A conservative estimate of the total production is fifty pounds of green beans and twenty pounds of shell beans. The current price of fine-quality green beans is eighty a cents a pound. A pound of shelled shell beans is about a dollar and quarter. Thus the value of the beans grown on one hundred and twenty square feet of the garden area is sixty-five dollars ... .Need I proceed further in this tedious, miserly reckoning of dollars and cents? Have I not provided beyond all doubt that a kitchen garden is a creative assault on scarcity?" (Lean Years, Happy Years, 41).
The monachine bean was a particular favorite of Pellegrini's. He savored them slowly, bean by bean, mashing each one with his fork and swiping it through a dab of olive oil before popping it into his mouth.
Although the designation of May 15 as the last-frost date in the region may have been true a half-century ago, it is no longer the case, according to Zimmerman:
"Soil temperature is more important. The top few inches need to get up into the mid 50's F. to get normal germination and initial growth. Winter soil temps are in the 40's ... .May 15th-ish is still a good rule of thumb if one is planting seeds directly in the soil (direct sowing). One can plant them up until the summer solstice and still reap a crop (of fully matured beans) in the autumn" (Zimmerman email).
Cuisine and Culture
Pellegrini wrote elegantly about the connection between food and culture, giving voice to concepts that were years ahead of their time for the average mid-century American family. In The Unprejudiced Palate, regarded today as a culinary classic, he said:
"The cuisine may be generally regarded as a part of a people's culture. The quality of the fare, the manner in which it is prepared, the time devoted to its ingestion, the conventions of the dinner table: these are intimately related to, and frequently reflect, a people's esthetic development" (The Unprejudiced Palate, 231).
Musick agreed that there is an intrinsic link between what we eat and where we come from:
"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" (Leson).