Photograph by Bon Appetit, Alamy
Photograph by Bon Appetit, Alamy
The Plate

Eat Your Lima Beans. Or Not.

For wholly unknown reasons, April 20 is National Lima Bean Respect Day.

And lima beans could probably use a bit more in the way of respect. After all, along with beets and Brussels sprouts, they routinely pop up on most-disliked-food lists, to the point where people who think they’re yummy often get defensive about it. Lima beans are “pillowy, velvety, and delicious,” writes Laurie Colwin in More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, “and people should stop saying mean things about them.”

Thomas Jefferson loved them, and frequently ate them in okra soup, an early version of gumbo, made with cymlings (pattypan squash), lima beans, and tomatoes.

Frances Trollope, author of the caustic 19th-century bestseller The Domestic Manners of the Americans, in which she dissed everything on the American continent from Niagara Falls (better-looking from the British side) to the Mississippi River (“a murky stream”) and the Declaration of Independence (“a warlike manifesto”), had a rare positive word for lima beans. She pronounced them “a most delicious vegetable.”

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Bart Simpson refuses to eat his lima beans. Film still courtesy of Fox.

A common nickname for the lima bean is butter bean, said to be descriptive of the bean’s rich taste and creamy texture. Lima-bean lovers are fine with this; lima-bean haters, on the other hand, argue that this is just a cruel trick, intended to lure the unsuspecting into lima-bean-eating. Firmly in the anti-lima-bean camp are snarky cartoon character Bart Simpson and the entire American army, which universally loathed C-ration Ham and Lima Beans.

Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus) are natives of South America. From Guatemala, they traveled north into Mexico, then through the American Southwest to the eastern seaboard, where they were adopted by native tribes from Florida to Virginia. These seem to have been the small-seeded version of the lima, sometimes known as sieva beans. An alternative large-seeded branch of the family, native to the Andes, spread south and southwest into Peru, where they were domesticated at least 6000 years ago.

Prehistoric Peruvians loved their lima beans. The pre-Inca Moche or Mochica people of northern coastal Peru not only grew and ate them, but celebrated them in art. And lima beans may, just possibly, have been South America’s first form of written language. Mochica lima-bean-patterned pottery shows beans painted with stripes and dots which, some archaeologists suggest, may be a bean-based form of proto-writing.

Spanish conquistadors picked up Peruvian lima beans from the Incas in the early 1500s, brought samples home to Europe, and distributed them, via their various voyages of exploration, to the Philippines, Africa, and Asia. Most lima beans we see today are white or greenish, but the early Peruvian beans came in a wild array of colors, including red, purple, and brown. A drawback to these gaudy varieties is that they’re more poisonous than the average bean.

Lima beans contain cyanogenic glycosides, sugar-bound compounds that are harmless until cellular disruption—brought about by chewing—releases an enzyme that chops the molecule in two, generating deadly hydrogen cyanide.

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Succotash is a popular dish made with corn and, you guessed it, lima beans. Photograph by Bon Appetit, Alamy

Beans aren’t the only potential cyanide dispensers. Also high on the cyanide scale are the seeds of apples, pears, peaches, and apricots. According to Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook, hieroglyphic references to “death by peach” indicates that the ancient Egyptians just may have carried out cyanide executions.

Cyanide, in a plant, makes sense. It’s there because plants are trying to protect themselves against herbivores, like us. (Think about that. Plants want us dead. See Ethical Eating: The Plants (and Animals) Are Watching Us.) Colorful lima beans, such as those popular in early Peru, can contain up to thirty times more cyanogens than the domesticated cultivars grown today. Eaten raw and in significant quantity, such a bean meal might just kill us off.

Luckily, we can beat out the belligerent lima bean by cooking it. Cooking turns cyanide-generating enzymes into impotent mush, rendering the beans both safe and recipe-ready. Even scrumptious. (See these lima bean recipes.)

And if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool, unbudge-able lima-bean hater —well, try pineapple upside-down cake.

April 20 is also National Pineapple Upside-Down Cake Day.