Green Beans: The Ultimate Culinary Equalizer

On the Detroit/Hamtramck border, a writer reflects on the deeper significance of a multicultural dinner staple

green beans

Green beans are the ultimate culinary equalizer, accessible in both fare and form. Almost every cultural community has enjoyed a love affair with them, from Korean green bean banchan to Mexican ejotes guisados (stewed green beans) to Southern-style green beans made by African American communities across the region.

This is true for Armenian cuisine as well. We call our green bean dish gananch fassoulia, which comes from the scientific name for beans: Phaseolus. Born in Iran to parents of Armenian descent, I grew up in a house where green beans were treasured. The dish has several variations, but the one cooked by my mother and grandmothers was accompanied by hunks of beef, fingerling potatoes, onions, and sour plums. They’d cook it slowly over the stove for what felt like hours until the beans were tender enough to cut with a fork. Served with cold yogurt, green beans were the ultimate comfort food, a simple peasant dish that hit the spot, as they tend to do.

That’s why it was one of the first things I started to cook when I moved from my American hometown in Los Angeles to Detroit. With my family thousands of miles away, I was in my own space for the first time, nostalgic for my childhood. But away from the confines of my mom’s kitchen, my green bean experience expanded in ways I was not expecting.

I live on the Detroit/Hamtramck border in an area called Banglatown. For more than 100 years, this part of town has served as a starting point for immigrants from all around the world, a place where people came in waves to rebuild their lives, whether they were from Poland, Ukraine, Bosnia, Syria, Ethiopia, or Mexico. More than 30 languages are spoken here, making Hamtramck Michigan’s most internationally diverse city.

My neighbors are mostly from Bangladesh and Yemen. And it turns out that we all share an obsession with beans. Every summer, my neighborhood transforms into a modern Midwest version of the hanging gardens of Babylon. Roofs are covered with squash plants, backyards are bursting with chili peppers, and trellises hold up many varieties of green beans, covering entire plots of land where houses once stood.

They cover so much space that my first year in the city, half of my backyard was overtaken by my next-door neighbor’s vegetable plants. One morning, I even woke up to find a white sheet sprawled on the concrete with glistening, just-picked red chili peppers drying in the sun.

But there’s more beyond the surface of planting, and often bartering with, these fruits and vegetables. It’s a connection to home and culture that, through one circumstance or another, becomes difficult to access. 

For Armenians, the green bean dish evokes strong feelings of identity and family life. Having gone through genocide, forced migration, and many decades of displacement by political upheaval and war — all of which have severed both tangible and intangible heritage — Armenians use cooking as an act of resistance, a way to feel connected to their ancestors, and a method for recreating culture.

After the first year of making gananch fassoulia, I began planting several varieties of green beans, inspired by the edible backyards of my neighbors and a longing for a deeper connection to ancestral land I had no access to.

Soon, the beans on my side of the fence and those my neighbors had grown began to intermingle, forming a sea of different shades of green and purple, and we began exchanging them. Just like that, I became part of the great bean barter of Banglatown.

For 50 long days, I watched the green beans grow, harvesting them when I had enough to make a batch of gananch fassoulia, but just before they became too tough to eat. I methodically cut them, one by one, remembering childhood scenes of kitchen towels and colanders full of beans and herbs in different stages of deconstruction. 

Growing the green beans I would eventually be cooking myself was a simple endeavor, almost too ordinary, maybe even too inconsequential a detail of life to talk about. It was a novice effort by an inexperienced gardener, but putting seeds in the ground and watching them come to life provided a profound cultural connection. It was a way to link myself back over several generations to those who had worked, with their blood, sweat, and tears, to lands that I would likely never see. It was a chance to inherit a skill that tied me to the soil. It didn’t matter that I was gardening and cooking thousands of miles away from the place my ancestors had once called home. What mattered was that I kept doing it.

After sautéing onions in olive oil, I added water, tomato, and the green beans, leaving them to simmer for a while, knowing that next door, my neighbors were probably cooking their green beans, too.


Armenian Green Beans Recipe

Ingredients:

2 cups green beans, washed and trimmed

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 tomato, chopped

2 Tbsp. tomato paste

1-2 garlic cloves, minced

¼ cup olive oil

1 cup water

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

Sauté chopped onions in olive oil for 5-7 minutes, until tender.

Add tomato, tomato paste, garlic cloves, water, and spices, and cook over moderate heat, bringing mixture to a boil.

Add green beans, cover, and reduce to low heat, cooking the stew for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the beans are very tender. Add more water if necessary.

Remove from heat and serve hot or cold. These green beans can be served all year long. They’re often paired with rice pilaf and served with a dollop of yogurt.

Other variations include adding meat (ground beef or lamb) or potatoes.

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