This afternoon, I was looking around on the web for a recipe for soupe au pistou, which is a typical Provençal dish made with fresh basil and white beans. In a fine website about beans of all kinds, the following variety caught my attention:
In French, they're known by several names: Holy Spirit beans, or Nun's navel beans. Although my eyes have witnessed neither the Holy Spirit nor a nun's navel, I reckon that those are good names for those dried beans. The day I finally meet up with the Holy Spirit or a nun's navel, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they did in fact look a bit like one of those beans. Incidentally, the cream-colored spot surrounded by the curious brownish markings is referred to by botanists as the bean's hilum. This term (used also in anatomy) designates a kind of scar that has formed at the spot where the bean was once attached to the pod.
The website proposes interesting theories concerning the origin of the markings. Since these explanations evoke the influence of religious phenomena, I've decided to include them in my blog for April 1 on the eve of Good Friday.
This bronze object in the form of the Sun, called a monstrance [from the Latin verb monstrare, to show], is a receptacle designed to hold and display the blessed wafers used in the mass. Pious old folk in the wooded eastern province of France known as Franche-Comté (nestled against Switzerland) tell the story of a peasant who once stole such an object from a nearby chapel. Realizing that he would be taking a risk by trying to sell the monstrance, he decided to bury it in his vegetable garden. Lo and behold, he was amazed to find that his next crop of white beans bore strange brownish markings depicting the stolen monstrance. You could think of this as old-fashioned criminal DNA, placed there by the Holy Ghost to mark the perpetration of an offense against God.
In Brittany, the origin of these beans is linked to the French Revolution. In a village near Brest, a church warden hid their sacred objects from the unholy marauders by burying them temporarily in the priest's vegetable garden and sowing beans to camouflage the site.
As everybody knows, you can't just plant beans on top of holy objects and imagine that nothing will come of it. The white beans harvested in the priest's garden bore the Holy Spirit's mark of the monstrance.
These otherwise fine tales don't explain how the meaning of the markings got twisted to the point at which people imagined them as depicting a nun's navel. Besides, were they really thinking of the navel, rather than of something a little further down? And what's so special about the navel of a nun, as opposed to that of any other female? I guess you could say it's just the good old Roman Catholic church dragging things down, once again, to the level of naked bodies and sinful sexual visions. They've always liked that kind of stuff.