Dry mouth, dizziness, death. Yes, this is a story about beans.
If you live in proximity to a truly old-school deli or a grocery store that hasn't rotated its stock since the Carter administration, you might've heard of lupini beans, a tough legume that's snacked on like bar nuts with beer in Portugal, Spain, Malta, and Italy. In the Levant, they're called tirmis by Arabs in Syria and Lebanon, and by Druze enclaves in Israel. You'll also find them mixed into ceviche and stews in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.
Most Americans under the retirement age, however, probably haven't heard of them. They're obscure in the most unhip of ways. If kidney beans are like dad jeans, lupini beans are like belting your great-grandfather's pants under your ribs.
And, because they're full of bitter toxins, they also have the ability to send you to the emergency room. Being poisonous is not a unique trick — many legumes contain gastric irritants called lectins, and Breaking Bad fans will recall that ricin poison comes from castor beans. But lupini beans, also known as lupins, don't become digestible and unthreatening with just a quick boil. Even after the many days required to soak them, they never become fully soft, and they still retain a bit of the bitterness that keeps them safe from animals in the wild. They come from a genus of beautiful flowering plants called lupinus, related to the Latin word for "wolf," allegedly because both lupins and wolves have a habit of killing sheep. How cute.
While they've been eaten in the Mediterranean for millennia, the literature is split on whether lupins were prized or merely tolerated by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who mostly grew them for animal feed. (Lupins are incredibly high in protein, second only to the soybean, and have been used as easy-growing "green manure.") In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder wrote that lupins are "shared by men and hoofed quadrupeds in common," and "taken frequently as food they freshen the human complexion." Quite the endorsement.
If kidney beans are like dad jeans, lupini beans are like belting your great-grandfather's pants under your ribs.
They were also a favorite of Diogenes, but not for freshening anything but his bowels. The leader of the Cynics liked to demonstrate his nihilism by shitting in the theater and jerking off in public markets. He'd also eat lupins in great quantities in order to fart his way through his opponents' speeches. In his book Beans: A History, legume expert Ken Albala writes, "As the most reviled and base of foods, they make the ideal diet for those who turn away from the world and even their own bodies. Bitter beans are perfect for masochistic monks whose reward for eating them will be eternal life."
That bitter flavor comes from quinolizidine alkaloids that can cause blurry vision, headache, photophobia, dilated pupils, nausea, and tachycardia — essentially the same symptoms of being uncomfortably stoned. There are a number of emergency room case studies involving people who had eaten inadequately soaked beans or drank the soaking water, one of whom described feeling like "cotton wrapped around my brain." You could, in theory, get some sort of high from eating improperly prepared beans, but you wouldn't want to. At least three children have died from eating them; in pregnant cows, a diet of lupins can cause a deformity called crooked calf disease, which is as unpleasant as it sounds.
Even if that does sound like your kind of party, good luck tracking them down in stores or restaurants. Even in Manhattan, you won't find them among the corona beans, the giant green olives, or the carciofi sott'olio at Eataly, the Batali-Bastianich Disney World of Italian imports.
Among a handful of Italian stores I visited on Mulberry Street, "never heard of 'em" was the refrain. Even at Di Palo's, a specialty grocer, I initially got a blank stare before the gears began to turn. "Only old timers eat 'em," I'm told by a middle-aged guy named Sal. Years back, he says, the fire escapes in these parts cradled claw foot bathtubs — not for bathing, but soaking beans. Di Palo's occasionally stocks them, but there's not a lot of customer interest. What tourist wants to return home with a LeSportSac full of salty, bitter beans? They're better off with their $14 jars of pesto.
If you can find lupini beans, it's best to get them already prepared. They're pickled in a salty brine and available in jars or sold in small baggies, like they do at Mario's Italian Lemonade in Chicago. For the jarred ones, rinse the beans in a couple changes of water, and dress with a hit of olive oil and a twist of cracked pepper. Pop them out of their skins like fava beans, straight into the back of your throat, and maybe you'll miss some of your tongue's taste receptors.
Oh, and if your pupils start to pop, you might want to call your doctor.