Why are Colorado beans so delicious?

Photo by Sarah Banks

Eat and drink

Farmers have been growing beans in southwest Colorado for almost 1,000 years. Here’s why they should be in your pantry this winter.

“People swear our beans just taste better,” says Denise Pribble, who wears a magenta sweatshirt and earrings to match her cropped burgundy hair. The 64-year-old daughter of a pinto bean farmer, Pribble owns and operates Adobe Milling Company, a retail store and processing plant that cleans, bags and distributes many beans grown around Dove Creek, at 35 miles northwest of Cortez. Whitewater paddlers know Dove Creek as the starting point for float trips on the Dolores River, which runs through a deep canyon on the city’s eastern border. Foodies, however, recognize Dove Creek as the “Pinto Bean Center of the World”.

This is the slogan that once greeted motorists in this farming community. For approximately four decades, starting in the 1950s, Dove Creek celebrated the supremacy of its beans with an annual recipe competition that bestowed top honors on a “Queen of Pinto Beans” (regardless of whether some ribbon winners were men). Today, Dove Creek’s welcome sign simply says it’s a “Somewhere Special,” but its reputation for producing top-quality pulses (dried legume seeds) lives on.

Each year, the region harvests between three million and 30 million pounds of beans, depending on rainfall and farmers’ crop rotations. A cult of home cooks, barbecue contestants, and restaurateurs eagerly scavenges not only pintos, but Dove Creek’s lesser-known Anasazi, black, bolitas and lesser-known varieties, all of which are all ideal for soups, stews and stews. winter accompaniments. dishes. If these beans walked on all fours, they would be as praised as the wagyu.

The reason behind the prominence of beans is a matter of debate, however. “Colorado dry beans are known for their bright, vibrant color and delicious flavor,” says Bob Schork, director of the Colorado Dry Bean Committee, which researches and promotes bean production in the state. “We believe this is because it is grown at a higher elevation than other beans in the United States.”

Pribble attributes a different natural input: the reddish-colored earth of Dove Creek. “Like the places where the best peaches or the best corn grow, our soil just seems to produce the best beans,” she says as truckers and locals who drive RVs and locals carrying burlap sacks of beans pass by. in front of the Adobe Milling register.

Or maybe, some say, Dove Creek beans are better because their theoretical roots run deeper: The ancient Pueblo and their modern descendants grew beans (as well as corn and squash) in the area for nearly 1000 years old, as evidenced by the beans and jars of beans found among archaeological sites in Mesa Verde National Park and Hovenweep National Monument. Maybe this land embraces this long relationship, or maybe the magic lies in the grains themselves.

Like the ancestral Puebloans before them, many farmers in Dove Creek grow beans without irrigation, allowing them to grow at a more leisurely pace than the well-watered plants, perhaps picking up more flavor in a process reminiscent of how wine grapes reflect their terroir. Dry cultivation also reduces the number of pests and diseases that attack bean plants, so growers do not need to use fertilizers or pesticides.

These conditions combine to produce beans with thinner skins, a dream scenario for restaurant and home chefs alike as they usually don’t need to be pre-soaked. Additionally, bolitas, a variety long loved by communities in the San Luis Valley for its high protein content and rich taste, actually absorb the seasonings through their skin when cooked, allowing the aromas to mingle. with velvety interiors.

A Dove Creek resident in front of the town’s welcome sign in 1980. Photo by Denver Post via Getty Images

Of course, not all Colorado growers avoid irrigation – flavorful pintos, light red kidneys, yellow Mayocobas, black beans, chickpeas, and red and black eyed peas are grown, sometimes with extra water, in various corners of the Centennial State, but the dryland specimens in the southwest corner rank at the top of all legumes, especially when fresh. “Because we get them so close to harvest, the beans impart a rich nutty flavor,” says Holly Arnold Kinney, culinary director of The Fort in Morrison, where chefs use Dove Creek Anasazi and pinto beans in the dish. side dish with restaurant potatoes. Plus, “the texture is creamier,” says Angelina LaRue Lopez, recipe developer and food columnist from Idalou, Texas, who swears by the sweetness and lack of chalk of Dove Creek beans to make a pinto dish. classic: refried beans.

Bessie White’s stove is topped with jars filled with lightly bubbling pie filling. Jars of gem-colored apricots, strawberry rhubarb and berry jam lie in boxes on the floor, waiting to be delivered to Cortez’s Saturday Farmer’s Market. At 91, White still delivers her homemade treats to the produce stand she’s been working with since the 1970s, when she and her sister founded the outdoor bazaar. But White doesn’t just sell fruit; she also sells dried beans grown by her son and grandson. Said White, “There’s nothing better than a pinto bean. “

White, however, has a unique history on another impulse that the region is widely known for. In 1973, she says she was working at the local elementary school when a student showed up with a handful of pretty beans she had found among nearby Native American archaeological sites. “There were burial grounds everywhere, and you would find them when you plowed your fields. The student’s father was digging a ruin and found a pot of beans, ”said White, who planted some in his garden. She ended up with a harvest the size of a quarter of shiny beans speckled with red and white.

The variety, which may have come from the Lukachukai Mountains of northeastern Arizona despite White’s recollection of their finding in what is now the Hovenweep National Monument, ultimately became Anasazi. Although the word has long been used to describe ancestral Puebloans, modern Pueblo tribes have pointed out that it is a derogatory term in the Navajo language. As such, people are now referred to as Ancestral Puebloans, while the lightly sweet, quick-cooking bean is stuck with a nickname that loosely translates to “enemy ancestors.”

Despite its name, the Anasazi bean is a much less formidable enemy to the human gastrointestinal system than many other varieties. Containing only 25 percent of the gas-producing compounds found in most beans, Anasazis trigger much less gas than a typical pinto. Sensing the commercial potential of the rediscovered strain, Ernie Waller, who owned Adobe Milling before Pribble and her husband bought the company in 2003, got a brand for the Anasazi bean in 1989. Call it Anglo appropriation or chain of events that probably saved the variety from extinction; in any case, the brand protects the genetics of the seeds and guarantees that only this variety is marketed under the name Anasazi.

No matter what they are called – or what variety the nonagenarian (still) throws 10-pound bags in his black van – White says southwest Colorado beans have been a long part of his life. And it doesn’t take much incentive to tout their dominance. “Yes,” she said. “I think our beans are just better.”

Visit the Adobe Milling Company website to purchase Dove Creek-grown Anasazi, Pinto, and Black Beans in quantities ranging from 1 to 40 pounds, or call 800-542-3623 to order by phone.

This article appeared in the December 2021 issue of 5280.

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