An old speckled bean

Heirloom red speckled butter beans at Grow Food Carolina.

Josh Johnson's grandmother sporadically saved seeds but let the last of her Jackson Wonders go about four years ago.

"Had I known then what I know now, I would have tried a little harder to save them," says Johnson, a Cameron farmer. Johnson this year ordered enough seeds to grow 10 acres of the speckled butter bean, which is starting to appear in Charleston restaurants.

"Everyone I knew growing up loved them," Johnson says. "I knew if I could produce a quality product, wouldn't have any trouble getting rid of them."

William Woys Weaver, a food historian and master gardener, has called the Jackson Wonder "one of the hardiest and most visually attractive" extant heirloom bush limas. According to a history Weaver wrote for Mother Earth News, the bean was developed by Atlanta's Thomas Jackson (the wonder of the plant is it doesn't require any poles to grow, but produces heaps of beans all summer long.) First sold commercially in 1888, the bean was popular with Victorian jewelry-makers who strung up the bright scarlet pods dappled with maroon.

Eaters familiar with the Jackson Wonder prefer to pick the bean before its characteristic speckles form, Johnson says. Although he's aiming to harvest the beans at peak flavor, beans on a single bush don't mature uniformly.

"A certain percentage on the bottom will be speckled, while the middle's just right and some on top are immature," Johnson says. "You try to maximize the yield but keep the clientele happy."

Johnson suspects much of the local affection for Jackson Wonders is rooted in nostalgia. He describes the beans as meaty.

"They have a little more texture to them, and maybe a nuttier flavor," he says. "And when they're cooked with a bit of bacon, they retain that flavor."

GrowFood Carolina's General Manager Sara Clow says that restaurants, including Husk, Hominy Grill, The Grocery, The Ordinary, Edmund's Oast, Butcher & Bee and High Cotton have experimented with Old Tyme Bean Co.'s output. Although none of the restaurants had added the beans to their menus at press time, Johnson says a simple preparation is sometimes best.

"Everyone loves to pour the liquor over rice, and make a big meal of rice and beans," he says.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.