With his idiosyncratic newsletter, Rancho Gordo's owner/hypeman Steve Sando makes a box of beans feel like a treasure chest full of tiny gems—and a respite from the headlines.

By Margaret Eby
August 22, 2019
Washington Post via Getty Images

When was the last time you got excited about beans? For me, and for the other members of Rancho Gordo’s Bean Club, it was a few weeks ago, when a quarterly shipment of six bags of heritage beans and one bag of a surprise grain hit my mailbox. Rancho Gordo, a California outfit headed by bean evangelist Steve Sando, sells heritage beans that are favored in certain food circles for their flavor and variety. Rancho Gordo has been well publicized for its work sourcing and distributing beans that you otherwise couldn’t find in the grocery store, and yes, the beans really are better—and different—than the dusty bag you’ll find on the shelves of most supermarkets. But I’ve found that as much as I look forward to the shipment full of intriguing new kinds of beans to try, I look forward equally to the missive that accompanies them, a bean newsletter written by Sando himself.

Being a hypeman for beans isn’t easy. Being really into beans sounds like a joke about the stodginess of adult life, something pulled from a Saturday Night Live sketch about NPR hosts. The most famous poem about beans, one you might recall from your schoolyard days, memorably rhymes “heart” and “fart.”

And yet, Sando manages to make a box of beans feel like a treasure chest full of tiny gems. His style is part good old-fashioned salesmanship, part dorky humor, and part earnest alt-weekly patter. His missives have an urgency that I didn’t realize writing about beans could have.

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“Yes, I hope you are sitting down as you opened this. You are not seeing things. You are now the owner of a pound of Good Mother Stollard beans,” Sando wrote in the opening of his most recent newsletter, before going on to describe them as “our Moby Dick of Beans.” His newsletters usually have incredible descriptors of beans and their potential, plus a recipe and a photo of, say, a pile of heirloom chickpeas.

Even if you’re not a bean club member, you can get a sense of his style all over the website, and in the online newsletter sent to the bean-curious. It ranges from semi-defensive advice about cooking, as with Ojo de Cabra beans (“Please don’t waste your stock or bones to ‘improve’ this bean. Frankly, it doesn’t need your help!”) to historical musings, as with the Santa Maria Pinquito beans. (“Most of us thought the Santa Maria "Pinks" were brought in with the migrant citrus workers of the 1950s who also introduced us to the tri-tip but now there's some thought that it was a crop during the Mission era.”) In some, there’s just glee about how silly beans are, like something you say too many times until it feels totally divorced from meaning.(“I prefer Royal Coronas because they are so ridiculously big. I like to laugh when I eat.”) There’s a sense that you’re being let into a great well of bean gossip as in his description of Christmas Lima beans, a calico red-brown bean that has “done a great deal to help fix the bad reputation” of lima beans.

Aside from conjuring an image of a tabloid column of “Hot or Not: Beans Edition,” this kind of writing serves a purpose more than selling heirloom cranberry beans. With the constant blast of bad headlines and my frayed attention span shot to pieces from jumping, frog-like, from bit of information to bit of information, reading about beans feels like a pause. It is a great psychic relief, a way to access a part of my brain that’s curious and interested in the world. It feels nourishing.

Glittering under every consideration of how best to cook a varietal is possibility. He’s selling you beans, sure, but he’s also letting you take a look into a world you may never have considered to be as rich and interesting as it is. If beans—beans—are so full of drama and intrigue and potential, well, so is everything. His specificity, his unpretentiousness, is a gift. It is a reminder that even within the world of beans there is nuance, hierarchy, and grammar. That, in fact, those qualities are everywhere, and deserve our consideration. There are stories in these beans. They are quiet, but they still worth hearing.

It is a rare and impressive skill, to present someone with an ingredient that’s traditionally been viewed as unexciting and alchemize it into something precious. At the same time, even the fanciest beans are still beans—comfortable and easy-going. They aren’t that high stakes. They’re beans. Slow down. Cook a pot of them.

“I hope you’re not tired of me saying that one pot of simple beans can be reinvented and reinterpreted time and again," Sando opened up one of his recent email missives. No, Steve. I’m not going to tire of it anytime soon.

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