Many years ago, Glenn Roberts worked on the shrimper Miss Alva out of Shem Creek with the legendary Captain Clarence "Junior" Magwood. In those days, the crew consisted of the captain, the mate, and four strikers of which Roberts was one. The strikers and mate lived aboard the boat all season; the captain lived ashore.
"Captain Junior was famous with our crew for the quality of the food he, personally, brought on board," Roberts recalls. "When he came on board with a full stew pot at 4 a.m., we knew we were in for a treat."
The stews were ever-changing, sometimes incorporating venison, sometimes seafood fresh from the shrimp nets, but always seasoned sharply with chiles and black pepper and served with rice, black-skillet cornbread, and "black coffee that could melt your teeth." There was one other regular ingredient: purple beans that Captain Junior raised in his own garden.
That garden was up in Cape Romain, so Magwood called them "cape beans." Dense and meaty, they were just the sort of hearty energy the hungry crew needed after six long hours of trawling.
Fast forward through the decades, and Roberts now runs Anson Mills, which produces some of the most in-demand rice and heirloom grains in the country. Over the years, he scoured South Carolina fields to rediscover near-extinct varieties like Carolina Gourdseed White corn and low-oil benne seeds. The memory of those beans he ate on Magwood's shrimp boat stuck with him, and he finally undertook to track them down, too.
"We found them through an organic farmer in Indiana who has relatives that farm outside Puerto Limon, Costa Rica," Glenn Roberts told me via e-mail.
As best as Roberts can tell, the beans are either native to the South Carolina Sea Islands or to Costa Rica, originating in one of the places and getting transported to the other via the banana trade. "Captain Junior told me that during his youth he used to occasionally get seeds off the big banana freighters ... and trade seeds with the occasional banana boat cook and crew."
The beans themselves are remarkable, a sort of cross between a kidney bean or a black bean and a Sea Island red field pea. They have a natural smokiness to them when cooked, and a great heft to their bite.
A number of Roberts' farmer friends are growing the beans in the Lowcountry now, including George and Celeste Albers on Wadmalaw Island. "They are very low yielding and cranky in the field," Roberts admits, "yet they are a terrific culinary bean and great local food. Worth the trouble in my book."
Quite a few chefs agree. Sean Brock, who calls the beans "one of my favorites," planted them in his patch up at Thornhill Farms last year. Lately he's been serving them at Husk along with fried catfish and ember-roasted cabbage and with wood-fired clams and green garlic cream. Out on Johns Island, chef Jacques Larson of Wild Olive combines them with rapini, chili flakes, and garlic and uses them to top bruschetta.
At High Cotton, executive chef Joe Palma has used the beans in a variety of ways, most recently in a summer take on baked beans. "I really do like them," he says. "You can cook them fully and they don't fall apart. They retain that brininess and that earthiness that are really nice."
For his baked beans variation, he cooks Purple Cape Beans and Sea Island Red Peas separately until they are almost tender, then mixes three parts beans to one part peas and bakes them for five hours with sorghum syrup and spices that include cloves, allspice, and cinnamon. He serves them alongside half a roasted chicken with a preserved kumquat and fine herb salad. It's a "summery and backyard type deal," Palma says.
Purple cape beans are now finding their way to restaurants well outside of Charleston, too. Tyler Brown at Nashville's Capitol Grille tops a bowl of the beans with sticky pork belly sweetened with pepper jelly. At Lemaire in Richmond, Va., Chef Walter Bundy creates his own version of "pork and beans" by pairing purple cape beans with a maple-brined pork along with root vegetables and kale in a ham hock jus.
For a while, Anson Mills was selling the heirloom beans just to their wholesale chef clients, but now that they have a sufficient stockpile of seed, they've added them to their retail site, too. You can also pick them up directly from Celeste Albers at her Green Grocer stand at the Charleston Farmers Market in Marion Square.
Even if you don't eat them aboard a rocking shrimp boat, they're remarkable beans and a distinctive taste of Lowcountry culinary history.
Basic Slow-Cooked Purple Cape Beans
1 Tbs. olive or vegetable oil
1/2 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup Purple Cape Beans
salt & pepper to taste
Add the stock and the beans. Bring the liquid almost to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cover the saucepan partially and simmer gently until the beans are tender, about 2½ hours.
Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.
Note: If you soak the beans overnight, you can shave an hour off the cooking time.