Celebrate the saving of a Hudson Valley bean

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Seed pack artwork by Melissa Washburn

Local chefs craft special dinners to feature Hank’s X-tra Special Baking Bean

The farm-to-table model of supporting our local farmers and restaurateurs is pretty firmly entrenched in our regional consciousness at this point. But a new collaboration that began last spring between regional growers and chefs takes the  concept further, encouraging opportunities for farmers by increasing demand for specialty crops.

The collaboration began with a “seed grow-out” conducted by the Glynwood Institute to reintroduce an obscure cultivar in the collection of the Hudson Valley Seed Library. Hank’s X-tra Special Baking Bean, tended carefully over many years in a private garden in Ghent, New York, was unknown to anybody outside of the region before the Seed Library put it in its catalogue. In cooperation with Glynwood and Slow Food USA – which identifies distinctive regional foods facing extinction and champions them in order to keep them in production – seven regional growers planted Hank’s X-tra Specials.

beans-VRTThe participating growers were Dutch’s Spirits in Pine Plains, Glynwood in Cold Spring, I & Me Farm in Bedford Hills, Lily’s Farm in New Paltz, VIDA Farm in Ghent, Starling Yards Farm in Red Hook and Whistledown Farm in Claverack. More than 100 pounds of beans were harvested from the seed grow-out, with some returned to the Hudson Valley Seed Library for their catalogue and retail outlets and the rest sold at low cost to members of the Hudson Valley Chefs’ Network.

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And now it’s the chefs’ turn to collaborate: A number of special dinners with a menu featuring Hank’s X-tra Special Baking Bean will be offered throughout the lower and mid-Hudson region this month. Ken Greene, founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Library, says that the coordinated effort between growers and restaurateurs “connects all the dots necessary for a truly regional food system,” placing the emphasis on seed-to-farm-to-chef-to-plate.

All of the chefs creating the special dinners are making a variation of a classic French cassoulet – a long-simmering stew thick with the dense, creamy beans – perfect for a cold January night. Hank’s X-tra Specials are a tender-yet-substantial legume that maintains its form when cooked, making the bean particularly well-suited for the dish, says Agnes Devereux, chef and owner of the Village Tea Room Restaurant & Bake Shop in New Paltz.

As a member of the Hudson Valley Chefs’ Network, Devereux and her Village Tea Room will host a Hank’s X-tra Special Dinner on Thursday, January 21 at 6 p.m. with one seating only. The cost is $45 for the prix fixe dinner or $60 to include drink pairings. The dinner includes an appetizer – a vegetarian version of the goat cheese tart and the cassoulet will be available – along with dessert and coffee or tea. Advance reservations are required at (845) 255-3434; seating is limited.

Other Chefs’ Network dinners in the mid-Hudson will be hosted at Hudson Wine Merchants with Talbott & Arding in Hudson on Sunday, January 17; Little Ghent Farm in Ghent on Tuesday, January 19; and Gaskins in Germantown on Thursday, January 28.

The Village Tea Room dinner in New Paltz on January 21 will feature two special guests: the Seed Library’s Ken Greene and Peg Lotvin, who contributed Hank’s X-tra Special Baking Bean to the Seed Library after discovering a stash of her father’s prized beans in a container at his house, five years after his passing.

That part of the story dates back to around 2004. Lotvin was librarian at the Gardiner Library at the time, and Ken Greene the children’s librarian. “We were both interested in gardening, and we would talk about particular types of vegetables, and about farming vegetables and saving seeds,” says Lotvin. “One day I said to him, ‘You know, my Dad used to plant these beans that we used exclusively for baked beans.’ Ken’s eyes lit up, and he said, ‘Are there any left?’ I didn’t know, and my Dad had already been gone for five years. But I went to visit my Mom and noodled around in the basement; and son of a gun, here is this jar of baking beans that he had saved for seed for the next year – a year he was never able to plant. And because they have such a long lifespan, they germinate for many years after they’ve been picked. We planted some, and a whole bunch of them germinated. Ken was just starting out with the Seed Library at that time, so I said, ‘If you want them, they’re yours.’”

Lotvin’s dad, Hank Losee, had been an automobile mechanic by trade but an avid gardener on his own time. “I think he always wanted to be a farmer, but he worked for my grandfather who had an Oldsmobile dealership and a garage and gas station right across the street from where we lived in Ghent.”

Lotvin remembers her father growing “every type of garden vegetable there is,” from spinach to peas, and lots of tomatoes. “We never had to buy a single vegetable,” she says. Hank was even known as the “Sweet Corn King” of the town. And Lotvin says that she doesn’t think that her Dad ever thought of the baking bean as anything special. “He just planted them every single year, and we harvested them. I can remember picking those rows of beans to the vanishing point. Then you had to shell them all and put them out in big pans, and he would spend several days, maybe even a week or so, picking out the very best ones for the seed for the next year. We’d have large pans of beans sitting on every flat surface in the house while he would walk by and pick two or three and put them in a separate bowl, walk by again and pick two or three more…It took a while, sometimes.”

The beans must have come from a package originally, she says, “but he started planting them back in the ’40s, and I have no idea – and my mother has no idea – what bean he used originally to start the long life of Hank’s X-tra Specials. But over the years, depending on where you plant them and the season, they change their character. He always picked the biggest ones, so whatever they were originally, they were a lot smaller than what they are now.” The harvest depends in large part on what the fall weather is like; if there’s a lot of rain, the beans will often rot, because they have to be left on the plant until they’re dry.

Lotvin says that she still remembers the day at the Gardiner Library when Greene told her that he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life: save seeds and sell seeds. “As we had our talks about vegetables and farming, you could see his ideas kind of crystallizing. I think it just all kind of jelled somehow in his head.”

And what does Peg think that Hank would say about all the fuss being made over his X-tra Special Baked Beans? “Knowing my Dad, I think he would just say, ‘Yeah, well, whatever they want to do.’”

 

Hank’s X-tra Special Dinner, Thursday, January 21, 6 p.m., $45/$60, Village Tea Room, 10 Plattekill Avenue, New Paltz; (845) 255-3434, www.thevillagetearoom.com.