In 1974 Hollywood released the movie Blazing Saddles, directed by flamboyant maverick Mel Brooks, in which the cowboy took centre stage. It became notorious for its repetitive scenes of cowboys breaking wind. While the viewing public loved this movie and remember it fondly, the professional critics were less impressed and preferred to forget it.
The source of those frequent bouts of flatulence was beans, a staple of the cowboy’s diet alongside meat, cornmeal and coffee. And not just any bean. When ‘the cooky’ assembled provisions to load on his wagon for the journey ahead, he included supplies of the pinto bean. This relative of the common bean Phaseolus Vulgaris, a large family that includes the kidney and black beans, has its origins in Peru. To this day, it is the most prevalent variety of bean across North America and North West Mexico.
As well as being important to the cowboy’s daily food intake across Texas and the border with Mexico, the pinto bean was among the provisions of immigrants heading west in the 1840’s on the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Northwest. It accompanied other staples such as coffee, sugar and bacon. And with good reason. As any medical professional knows, beans are rich in protein and minerals including phosphorus, manganese and copper. As well as being a good source of dietary fibre, they also contain low levels of saturated fat.
The pinto was sold in dry form and was therefore light to carry and compact to pack away. Kept in a cool, dry place it would last for months. It was also very versatile, equally at home with chilli and rice as it was wrapped up in a Mexican burrito. The ‘cooky’ loved it because he could give his hungry charges beans ‘whole’ or mashed; they could be re-cycled the next day, compressed into flat ‘cakes’ and served hot or cold. To a Mexican, the pinto or porota frutilla, meaning literally ‘strawberry bean,’ is part of his culture; in New Mexico the humble pinto is venerated as an official state vegetable along with the chilli.
The pinto bean was universally popular because it was above all cheap to buy. This explains why, in rural areas of the Deep South, it was much eaten by the poor. If they could not afford this staple foodstuff to see them through the winter, churches and other fundraising groups could, and sponsored them by providing ‘pinto bean suppers.’
The only caveat to this trusted culinary workhorse lies in the preparation. Dried pintos are one of the hardest of the bean family. Unless they are softened overnight or power-boiled for a few minutes first of all, cooking can be a lengthy process. At the cooking stage, boiling the beans further reduces cooking time; it also adds texture and removes the natural sugars that are hard to digest.
And the reason these beans can be so explosive? The answer lies in the very fibres that are so nutritious and help the digestive system. The fibres are full of carbohydrates such as raffinose and stachyose which, being too large for the intestine to easily absorb, pass through intact and meet bacteria that thrive on them. They also meet the bodily gases, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide that help break down the fibres. The resulting reaction often creates spectacular, unwelcome results.