Fame, banner year for Whidbey’s bean | Rockin’ a Hard Place

We had a lot of rain early this spring, then a lot of sun, then a lot of cooler temperatures, then a lot more sun. Those in the know about such things on Central Whidbey can add it up. After a couple thin years, 2016 should produce a great harvest of Rockwell beans.

When I first moved to the Rock, I heard long-timers in these parts singing the praises of this humble little red-and-white bean, which seems to be grown nowhere but on Ebey’s Prairie. The locals gushed over its tastiness and its courageous ability to hold its shape after lesser beans turn to mush in the oven or soup pot. And they debated endlessly over whose family recipe was best: The Smiths? The Shermans? The Hancocks? The Engles?

As an émigré from America with little knowledge of beans beyond my tasteless encounters with the ones in Van Camp’s cans, I initially doubted all this hoopla and folklore. But then I had my first encounter with Rockwells at a potluck, and I surrendered. They are a delight to the taste buds grown only on our Rock, with preparation techniques perfected by local cooks for more than 125 years.

I have always been curious about why Rockwells are only grown here and why they cost so much — $10 a pound at the Red Apple or at the farmers’ market. So when I saw a recent post on Facebook by local farmer Georgie Smith of Willowood Farm saying that she expects a bumper crop of Rockwells this year, I paid her a visit. (Other local farmers also grow Rockwells, including Wilbur Purdue and Vin Sherman.)

We drove down rutted farm paths just off Ebey’s Landing Road to the acreage she has planted in Rockwells. Hanging on the sturdy plants were thousands of beautiful bean pods, some seven or eight inches long.

“For me, this is probably going to be a record year for Rockwells,” she said. “We may get 2,000 pounds, which is terrific considering that we only did about 600 pounds last year.”  (Her previous record harvest was about 1,500 pounds in 2013.)

Georgie has been a successful promoter of Rockwell beans. She now sells them to eight or more high-end foodie restaurants in Seattle, where chefs like them because they hold their shape in every recipe and have a “local provenance” – the cute little bean from Whidbey Island.

“Rockwells are not very profitable because they take so much work,” she said, which is one main reason why more aren’t grown. “But they have helped me introduce my greens and other vegetables to the restaurant trade.”

Georgie expects to pick her beans earlier than usual this year, by mid-September, because the weather was so warm in the April when they were planted and the soil was so moist from lots of rain. After the plants are picked, they are run through a combine and a thresher, then the beans are placed in a drier for a month or more and then they are packaged for sale.

As opposed to most dry beans, which grow in hot, dry climates, Rockwells thrive in the cooler, marine environment of Ebey’s Prairie. Tried elsewhere, they have not done as well. Nobody knows for sure where they originated, but they were first grown on Central Whidbey by Elisha Rockwell (1835-1910), a “gentleman farmer” who grew them in his kitchen garden in the 1890s. Neighbors liked them so much that they planted their own supply, and once local cooks starting bringing them to potlucks at the Coupeville Methodist Church their legend grew.

And now the humble bean from Whidbey Island is gushed over by diners who pay a bundle for the privilege at expensive Seattle eateries. That’s why Georgie Smith thinks we ought to celebrate our famous legume in our own backyard by holding an annual Rockwell Bean Festival every fall. Her big dream is to have Lyle Lovett’s band playing in her barn as locals swing dance and chefs serve up Rockwells in a variety of tempting dishes.

Why not? That kind of idea worked out pretty well for Penn Cove mussels.