Phaseolus lunatus: more commonly known as the lima bean, it’s also known around the world as the Burma bean, Guffin bean, Hibbert bean, Madagascar bean, sugar bean, and more. But as a Southerner, the only name that fits in my book is the butter bean. This legume has its origin in Mesoamerica, and love for it is widespread.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She always lived nearby and as a result, she had a heavy influence on the foods that I love today. If I had been given a choice, she and I would have only ever made Jell-O, but since her household was not a democracy, we ate a wide variety of her favorite foods. One of those was butter beans.
Depending where you are (and where you’re from), “butter beans” can mean different things. When my grandmother made them, she used a mix of the young (smaller, greener) and the adult (larger, paler in color) beans, and cooked them in butter with ham or bacon, and sometimes onion. The preparation of this dish—cooking butter beans to the perfect melt-in-your-mouth consistency in butter and some part of the pig—is an important and much-beloved tradition in the South. Some people consider the smaller, younger beans to be lima beans and the larger, older beans butter beans. Others, my husband included, think that “butter beans” simply refers to lima beans that are cooked “Southern style.”
The weekend of our first wedding anniversary, my husband Dan and I rented a cabin near Milton, Delaware. We chose Milton because that’s the home of Dogfish Head Brewery, a place we had long been hoping to tour. It was also close to Rehobeth, which meant that there were plenty of things for both of us to do. When we headed home on Sunday, we decided to take the scenic route home through Western Delaware, through the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and finally over the bridge back to Baltimore.
On the way home we stopped at a farm stand and I picked up a bag labeled “lima beans.” We got in the car and I told Dan that I’d be making butter beans for our blog Thanksgiving (wherein I prepare Thanksgiving recipes in advance). This launched a discussion that, once again, pointed at the glaring regional differences between us. As I mentioned, Dan considers the beans lima beans—until they’re cooked in butter and pork; then they become a dish called “butter beans.” To me, the beans are simply butter beans, no matter how they’re prepared.
The next day I was lamenting this fact to my (Yankee) coworkers, one of whom usually agrees with me on matters of the South. This time, however, she vehemently disagreed with me. In fact, she was of the opinion that there were two completely different beans: lima beans and butter beans! And because she’s not one to admit she’s wrong unless I have proof, I took it to the Internet—which, of course, proved me right: there is only one bean, whose name varies depending where you’re from.
All of this debating with Northerners got me thinking. It often feels like the further we push into the new millennium, the more the regional differences between Americans disappear. As this happens, some (like me) will cling to the phrases, recipes and quirks from our childhood. Others will sit back and let it happen.
What food from your home region will you continue to make? What recipes will you be sure to teach your children? For me, it’s butter beans. And collard greens. And biscuits. And barbeque. And you can bet I’ll be making sure they say “yes, ma’am,” “no sir” and “y’all.”
Editor’s Note: Lima bean, butter bean…it’s all so confusing. Set yourself straight with a piping hot dish of Southern-style beanie goodness. Check out Elena’s butter bean recipe here.
Elena Rosemond-Hoerr is a photographer and writer based out of Baltimore. Born and raised in North Carolina, Elena writes about Southern food culture, blending stories and recipes to bring a piece of the South to everyone. You can find her delicious recipes on her blog, Biscuits and Such, and follow her food musings on Twitter @biscuitsandsuch.