Featured Cooking Bean: Cherokee Trail of Tears

This year I am on a mission to cook and eat as many different varieties of  beans as possible. This is the first in a series about my observations about those beans.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I truly love food that has a story associated with it. The food and the story are then permanently linked together. I think that is one of the many things that is lost when we let others grow our food for us. Food then becomes a commodity, one without heart or history. And often without much flavor or nutrition, though that is a topic for another day. The Cherokee Trail of Tears bean has plenty of both history and flavor, which I think makes it all the more special.

Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean seeds

Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean seeds

In 1977 the late Dr. John Wyche, who was a dentist of Cherokee descent, donated the seeds to the Seed Savers Exchange. According to Cherokee tradition, the bean seeds were carried during the forced relocation of the Cherokee Nation in 1838-1839. It is estimated that 4000 died of hunger, exposure, and disease during that march, and today the small black bean has become symbolic of the Cherokee struggle for survival.

harvest of Trail of Tears Beans

harvest of Trail of Tears Beans

In the garden, the Trail of Tears bean has a vining habit, and benefits from a study support. The 6-inch long pods are round and green with a distinctive purple overtone. It can be eaten as a snap bean while the pods are young, or allowed to mature for a dried bean. I have grown this variety for the last two years and for me it is a dependable but somewhat shy producer.

Trail of Tears beans after soaking

Trail of Tears beans after soaking

In the kitchen, the shiny black oblong seeds have a rich and full flavor. They have made it on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste, a list of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction. According to food historian William Woys Weaver, the dried beans were originally used by the Native Americans to make flour. They were also sometimes cooked along with blue and black corns. I think they make an excellent black bean soup, and the beans hold up well in cooking. I have not found any commercial sources for the dried cooking beans, though the seeds are widely available from a number of seed companies.

Trail of Tears Bean soup

Trail of Tears Bean soup

I know they are popular among many gardeners out there, and I would be interested in hearing how others have prepared them, as well as any observations you might have on growing them. I hope you have enjoyed this review of the Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, and I will be back soon with another bean review. Until then, Happy Growing (and eating) from Happy Acres!

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12 Responses to Featured Cooking Bean: Cherokee Trail of Tears

  1. Michelle says:

    I haven’t tried Cherokee Trail of Tears but I may have to find room in my garden one of these years. So many fabulous beans and too little garden space. Your bean quest is fun to follow along, can’t wait to see what you’re cooking up next!

    • Dave says:

      I’m going to grow a bush black bean as well this year, probably Black Coco but I am considering Black Valentine too. I have a couple of months before it’s bean sowing time around here, so I want to do some taste-testing first!

  2. Margaret says:

    Love, love, love them….but I think you already know that!

    The first time I grew them in 2013, we harvested many of the beans fresh – they were delicious, tender and completely stringless. I left a few on the vine for drying and once I tasted the dried bean, I knew that this is what I wanted to reserve them for. At that time, I simply cooked them up and ate them plain as I only had a small amount.

    I now have two quart jars of beans and they are so precious that I am still umming and ahhing about how to use them. Black bean soup is on the list but I normally make it as a puree, which is why I was hesitant in using these beans for it – I want to enjoy their taste and texture. I really like the way you left some of the beans whole (why didn’t I think of that?). I think I will go soak some beans now… 😉

    • Dave says:

      When I made the soup, I waited until the beans were done then took a potato masher and smashed a few of them to thicken the soup a bit. The rest I left whole, so it made a nice compromise somewhere between a puree and whole beans.

  3. Norma Chang says:

    Like Michelle I haven’t tried Cherokee Trail of Tears but will try to find room in my garden may be next year.
    It is snowing again and how I would love a bowl of your trail of beans soup.

  4. Daphne says:

    I used to love this bean when I could eat beans. Unlike for you it was a very good producer in my garden, often the best producer. We are both zone 6b, but I have a maritime climate here, where the summers don’t get as hot. I wouldn’t guess that would make for good bean yields, but maybe ToT is less reliant on hot summers.

    I also find that it produces very vigorous vines. I often compared them to aliens trying to take over the world, as they cold swamp any poor bean grown next to it. I bet it could grow 15′ in a season if you had the supports for it.

    I typically ate it in black bean soup or chili (the later mixed with kidney beans), but it makes a good bean dip too. Beans, salsa, melted cheese all heated up and pureed until smooth. Beans aren’t traditional in enchiladas, but I loved them that way. They also make a really good bean burger.

    • Dave says:

      Thanks for weighing in with your thoughts. I first heard about this bean from you, so I know you had grown it in the past. I am guessing our hot and humid summer weather causes problems for the shelling bean varieties. Either the blossoms fall off, or else they don’t get pollinated well and make pods with fewer seeds. That won’t stop me from growing it again though. I just wish I had more of it to eat!

  5. Mike Yaeger says:

    Grew beans for the first time this past summer…this same variety! My wife cooked them up this Sunday and dang they were good! We did not expect them to swell up so big!…they started out so small. Do homegrown beans typically swell up to a greater degree than store bought dry beans? Very tasty…we’re growing them again this year along with Good Mother Stallards that you seem to like so much.

    • Dave says:

      I know homegrown beans usually cook up faster than store bought ones, no doubt because they are fresher. I don’t know about swelling up more though. I think some beans just naturally swell up more than others.

      I hope the Good Mother Stallard beans do well for you. I think they are such a tasty bean, and they seem to grow well here for me.

  6. Don Reeves says:

    I ordered and grew 2 packs of ToT black beans, and they have been the most productive, best tasting vineing black bean I have ever planted.. I grew this bean on 2 types of supports, a tall variety of corn (Truckers-a 3 sisters concept) and a chain link fence that I used to use as a dog pen. The beans on the fence where way more productive, due to: they were planted earlier, and there was no competition for the nutrients and sunshine from the corn. I had no bug related problems either in my organic garden. I added aluminum prongs to the chain link fence to give more height to grow. The vines outgrew the 12 foot height of thew corn, which made it harder to pick.

  7. Lachelle Norris says:

    Thanks for the information. I live in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee and didn’t plant my ToT beans until July 28. True to the 65 days until harvest advice, they are just now coming in. I wasn’t sure when to pick them. We’ve already canned several quarts of green snap beans so based on these comments, I’m going to wait and harvest when mature for dried black beans. I planted them where snow peas had been previously (with standard fencing as a trellis) but had to add a couple of large tomato cages (made from the same standard fencing) on top due to their prolific vining.

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