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Tepary Beans—interesting information from a gardener and ethnobotanist

Martha Ames Burgess, © May 2009

Tepary—the name itself comes from the Native Tohono O’odham word ba’wi  referring to that little power-packed bean which grows wild in some of the most forbidding parts of the Sonoran Desert, and which was domesticated from the wild by the Hohokam ancestors of the Tohono O’odham.  When the Spanish encountered the O’odham, they asked, “What do you call yourselves?” and the Desert People replied, “We are the Bean People—the Ba’ba-wi O’odham.”   The Spanish thought they heard “Papago” and that was the term that stuck in use for centuries.  The tepary bean was a most important food and staff of life for the O’odham.  It kept them full of sustained energy, healthy, and able to run long distances to fetch water or hunt, hence their name Bean People was highly honorable to say the least, honoring the tepary and a successful way of life in the desert.

The domestic tepary, descended from its desert-adapted progenitor, is attuned to the summer monsoon season, and can withstand the hottest desert temperatures as long as the humidity is high and it gets some water.  As an O’odham Elder once told me, “Plant your teparies when the clouds look hard,” that is, when the monsoon clouds begin to form in the southeastern sky around early July.  Of course with supplementary irrigation we Santa Cruz Valley dwellers can start them earlier, or, as the O’odham do, we can plant as late as the first week in August.

Health-wise, the tepary has far more protein and complex carbohydrates than the average pinto or common bean.  (insert nutrition panel from MABurgess if requested)  It provides as the Natives say, “satisfaction,” that is, sustained energy and no hunger pangs or post-mealtime downers.  The complex carbs bind with the products of digestion, slowing the boom and bust cycle which comes with digestiing simple carbs and sugars.  Teparies provide a low and steady input of sugars into the bloodstream, making them ideal not only for athletes but even for diabetics.  People with Type II diabetes have reported much better regulation of their blood sugar by eating teparies.  Some, on a high fiber diet including teparies, have been able to even get off of supplementary insulin!

Teparies, because of their density, take a long time to cook.  Plan on a few hours.  When you prepare a batch, do a big one and freeze the cooked teparies in serving size portions for later “healthy fast-food” when you reheat them.  My O’odham friend would keep a pot on the fire slowly cooking all morning to serve us delicious tepary burritos for a hot midday meal, with a few cooked cholla cactus buds and mesquite tortillas on the side.  After sorting and washing the teparies, you should soak them overnight to let them swell slowly.  I usually bring them to a quick boil to break the seedcoat before soaking them in the same water.  The next day I give the excess soak-water to my compost, put fresh drinking water in the tepary pot and simmer without salt until the teparies test soft.  Then, you can do anything—anything—with your cooked teparies.  Try making soup with lots of onions, garlic, and veggies; or mashing them for refries; or making hummus or dip.  Native Seeds/SEARCH (the conservation group which helped save the tepary from extinction and provided seed back to Natives who wanted to grow traditional food again) suggests substituting mashed teparies in homemade bread, brownies, or even vegetarian lasagna! 

You can find teparies for sale now at some farmers markets, at Native Seeds/SEARCH (www.nativeseeds.org), San Xavier Coop Association, Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), and www.flordemayoarts.com.  Save some out to try in your own garden this summer as well as at your own table, enjoying their rich good taste and health benefits while gardening appropriately in the desert!

Interested in Tepary Beans?.....(and other local foods)

Check out a back issue of Desert Plants journal (Vol.5, #1) totally devoted to the tepary, edited by G.P.Nabhan. An article by Martha A. Burgess describes how a single farmer, W.D. Hood, helped to save the Native tepary from oblivion. Google Desert Plants Journal for back issues.

Get your copy of the latest Local and Heritage Foods Directory for southern and southeast Arizona compiled by Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance.

In it, Flor de Mayo’s Martha Burgess contributes a colorful short history of this well-adapted, energy-packed Native heirloom food. Fun for the “local foodie,” this handy booklet has articles by Gary Paul Nabhan, Dr. Maribel Alvarez, and Jim Griffith, lists of farms and farmers’ market sources, and great recipes. Available for $5 at www.SantaCruzHeritage.org.