Ark of Taste
The historical origin of the Rockwell Bean is unknown. It is believed that the bean is descended from a very old German-Hungarian bean known as the Rote Von Paris, or Piros Feher bean («red and white» in Hungarian). The bean is an extremely rare heirloom variety of bush bean that have historically been grown by farmers of Ebey’s Prairie in Coupeville, Whidbey Island, Washington. It came from early Coupeville pioneer, Elisha Rockwell, who settled there in the late 1800s. He maintained this variety that rapidly became popular in the small pioneer community for its ability to germinate in cool soils and mature rapidly – both extremely important traits in a cool, maritime climate. After Elisha Rockwell died, other farmers, particularly Wilbur Sherman, continued to grow, sell and share their beans. Coupeville farmers’ wives maintained the seed, carefully saving a mason jar to replant every year in their kitchen garden.
The Rockwell Bean is a beautiful white bean with cranberry mottling around the hilum. The beans can be planted in May as soon as the soil is warm and are ready for harvest in 80-90 days. The Rockwell is considered a “cassoulet” type bean, which keeps its shape, yet cooks up creamy and rich, and accepts many flavors. In the early days, it became the subject of fierce debate over which family brought the best crock of Rockwell beans to the Sunday Methodist potluck. To this day, there is still debate about whose recipe for Rockwell baked beans is the best.
The bean is currently grown by only four farmers, who are the descendants of Ebey’s Prairie pioneer families: Georgie Smith of Willowood Farm, Wilbur Purdue of Prairie Bottom Farm, Wilbur Bishop of Ebey Road Farm, and Vin Sherman. The beans are available at the local farmers markets and a few retail stores, and disappear quickly as soon as they appear on the shelves.
It is hard to grow the Rockwell Beans for commercial sales, as they are not meant for large-scale mechanical harvest. “They tend to “shutter” when they mature, and it is impossible to get them dry enough to field thresh, before they start dropping their beans. However, on a small hand-scale, the plants can be pulled and put into storage to finish drying before threshing. Small scale producers hand pull the crop and store it in sheds for about a month until they are entirely dry” [Georgie Smith, Willowood Farm]. There is no other bean that is so perfectly suited to the cool summers and short growing season of the Pacific Northwest.