How humble beans mimic human beings

A video and an article about beans in ‘The New Yorker’ entitled ‘The intelligent plant’ made my mind boggle

There were many valuable lessons learned about eating and diet and health from studies and research published in the year just ended.

We learned that organic milk has a lot more omega-3s and a lot less omega-6s than non-organic milk, so it’s better for you.

We learned that there are 10,000 bacterial species in our microbiome and that they weigh three pounds, the same weight as our brain. These bacteria also outnumber our cells by 10 to one.

We learned that fats are the chief constituent of the human brain and that Omega-3 fats help prevent obesity, diabetes and heart disease.


We learned that the children of mothers who have a healthy and diverse diet when pregnant and when breast-feeding are receptive to a broader range of flavours and foods, and that the children carry this fondness for different foods through childhood and into adulthood.

We also learned that the children of mothers who have a junk food diet develop a preference for those foods.

Put it this way: you are what you eat, and your children are what you eat, too.

We learned that regular exercise can prevent cellular damage and blood sugar issues associated with overeating, and research showed that exercise can be as effective as drugs in treating conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

We discovered that simple culinary rituals enhance our enjoyment of food, and that being absorbed in cooking the food we eat, and smelling that food, helps us to be mindful of our diet.

We learned that microbial bacteria on grape skins may help to explain why wines from certain regions have similar taste characteristics.

Intelligent plants
And then, just as the year was ending, a series of short, time-lapse videos made by Stefano Mancuso in the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, near to Florence, accompanied an article by Michael Pollan in The New Yorker, entitled "The Intelligent Plant".

I read the article, then watched the four minutes of video several times.

And my mind boggled. And then boggled some more. I showed it to several people, and their minds boggled.

One video shows a bean-plant growing, shot over a period of two days. A couple of feet away from the plant is a metal pole. As you watch, the plant casts itself repeatedly in the direction of the pole, striving to reach the pole.

It reaches in no other direction than towards the pole and, when it finally makes contact and begins to wrap itself around the pole, it appears to relax.

The second video shows two bean plants growing, on either side of a central pole.

Both plants cast their tips towards the pole and then, when the bean plant on the left makes contact, the bean plant on the right appears to give up trying to secure the pole, and starts casting around behind the pole, where there is nothing to latch onto.

The plight of the losing bean plant is almost enough to make you weep.

Human beings and humble beans
The effect of watching the video is simple: you ask yourself if you have been showing enough respect to the most humble things that we grow to feed ourselves.

What is more commonplace and industrialised than the proverbial can of beans?

And yet here are these little plants demonstrating what can only be described as “intention”, which we heretofore would have imagined was the sole preserve of “intelligent” creatures, ie creatures with brains.

And just think, then, of the journey made by all the ingredients that you use when you make your own baked beans: the onion, the tomatoes, the bacon, the garlic, the mustard seeds, the chilli and those determined beans, striving and casting for support so they can continue their journey towards . . . feeding us.

Here is the simplest recipe I know for baked beans, from the wonderful food writer, Annie Bell.

A slug of vegetable or olive oil
A couple of handfuls of bacon lardons (or 1 x 100g packet)
3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped Half an apple, diced quite finely
1 x 400g can of chopped tomatoes
2 tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped
2 x 400g cans of haricot beans
2 teaspoons light muscavado sugar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
A pinch of chilli flakes or a few shakes of Tabasco
Sea salt and butter to serve

Heat a slug of oil in a large saucepan or casserole over a medium heat and fry the lardons until they are a light gold, then add the shallot, garlic and apple and continue to fry until glossy and softened.

Add all the remaining ingredients and simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes. Drop a few slivers of butter in the centre and leave to melt. Dish up with buttered toast.


John McKenna is author of The irish Food Guide