Alubia Blanca, Good Mother Stallard, Vaquero, Eye of the Goat. Four times a year, some 11,000 packages are packed with heirloom beans, sealed with novelty packing tape, and shipped out of a warehouse in Napa County, California. Across the United States, self-described “People of the Bean” anxiously track their packages. The waitlist to join the Rancho Gordo Bean Club is estimated at 10 months. The world’s self-proclaimed most exclusive food subscription service is, fantastically, for dried beans.
As cultural anthropologists, we appreciate the critical take on a subscription service for which people pay six dollars a pound for “little rocks [that turn] into something delicious.” We can practically hear Pierre Bourdieu screaming at us about class distinction. World-systems theory is whispering the woes of declining comparative advantage to Mexican farmers who ship raw materials to distant markets. If you are reading Anthropology News, you too can critically read a Californian heirloom bean subscription as an extractive redirection of resources from the smallholder farms of Mexican communities to the Le Creuset Dutch ovens of US kitchens. But any anthropologist worth their salt (a key ingredient in tender legumes!) knows that our world is complex; contradictory truths co-exist. Here, we spill the beans on a different take. Full disclosure: this essay is the result of enthusiastic participant-observation. Rissing and King are proud Bean Club members (and Chuvileva is on the waitlist).
Rancho Gordo members are not mere bean counters; rather, they are eager consumers bridging affective attachment to the world’s humblest food with a thriving sense of culinary community. The club’s heart is a 4,000+ members-only Facebook group, home to newbies unsure how long to soak their Royal Coronas (answer: at least twice as long as you think) and old hats bragging about dedicated bean pantries. In addition to reviewing new varieties and sharing recipes, members post pictures of their dogs bedecked in Rancho Gordo-branded tissue paper, commiserate over broken bags of beans, and delight in “bonuses” such as Spanish paprika, purple popcorn, and Mexican oregano.
As the quarterly ship date approaches, online excitement increases. But this is also the tensest time in the Facebook group, a holdover from what old-timers darkly call the “spoiler wars.” Rancho Gordo ships from California, but members around the country receive their boxes on different dates. Given the unparalleled joy that the quarterly shipment inspires, many members immediately post pictures and content lists, which leaves some second-wave recipients feeling cheated of the surprise. Tensions boiled over in 2019 in a post that generated over 100 comments containing hotly-contested and impassioned pleas.
On one side, a small but vocal number of members felt that sharing contents too early violated basic community respect. Most members, however, thought that anyone who cared so much about the surprise of unboxing could stay off Facebook for a few days or, barring that, hide new posts from their timeline. In between the two sides were several members who, while repeatedly emphasizing that they didn’t care about spoilers, believed that a truly welcoming group would endeavor to accommodate.
The debate waged for a week as members flung minor insults and posted sarcastic GIFs—deeply unusual for the group. Eventually, Rancho Gordo founder Steve Sando made a rare appearance and, making clear his disbelief and disappointment that the club had stooped to this level, issued a ruling in favor of the majority camp.
Today, there’s a spoiler-free spin-off Facebook group, and members still post tongue-in-cheek warnings before sharing gleeful photos of new boxes. More striking to us is another legacy of the spoiler wars: that of a community learning, imperfectly, how to govern itself. Though those concerned about spoilers were relatively few, they cared deeply about preserving the surprise and asked the rest of the group to accommodate their preferences. The group debated the request in posts alternately snarky and earnest, but couldn’t reach a satisfying consensus. Having exhausted democratic options, members asked the founder-in-chief to serve as arbiter of fairness. Whose rights was the group to abide? Sando’s top-down ruling favored the majority opinion. Joking posts that “Steve has spoken!” proliferated, hinting at the extent to which Sando’s role at Rancho Gordo exceeds mere business owner to also encompass charismatic, if disgruntled, leader.
Trust and education
The passion for Rancho Gordo sprouts in no small part from an unassuming culture of trust in Sando and the Rancho Gordo team. The pride of membership extends beyond the humble food staples themselves to also include the man and the employees that make the beans accessible to the self-identified “bean freaks.”
Rancho Gordo beans are not certified organic or fair trade. They are, in fact, not certified at all. Rancho Gordo does not apologize for this and stands by their farmer-partners’ right to use chemicals selectively in order to ensure a harvest. Rancho Gordo’s overarching goal is preserving heirloom bean varieties and making them commercially viable for growers. In recent years, the company began to partner with the Xoxoc Project to buy directly from small-scale farmers in Mexico. Rancho Gordo members can try obscure beans absent from conventional markets while supporting farmers harmed by international trade policies that Rancho Gordo identifies as discouraging genetic diversity and local food traditions. Rather than highlighting a specific farmer, the beans themselves take center stage. More than 25 varieties of beans have a waitlist at time of writing.
As opposed to the surfeit of certification labels that emerged during the so-called quality turn to help consumers know verifiable facts about their food (see Goodman 2004), Rancho Gordo beans trade on consumers’ trust. This trustworthiness owes much to the transparency and self-deprecating tone assiduously maintained by the company and its founder. Over the past 20 years, Sando has gone from scheming his way into California farmers markets to supplying world-famous chefs. He has gained more than a bit of a cult following in the process, gracing publications from Bon Appetit to the New Yorker. And this cult of personality around Sando gives his team license to educate the “People of the Bean.” A key piece of that education is dealing with disappointment stemming from Rancho Gordo’s unwillingness to scale up. Sando maintains a commitment to the beans first. Crop quantities, not consumer demand, determine the speed of the company’s growth. Beans are an inescapably annual crop, and Rancho Gordo does not have a magic reserve after the year’s harvest is all cooked up. The company’s slow scaling leaves room for members to learn about the processes of growing beans, value a specialty crop, celebrate its running out, and rejoice in its return. Through these processes of trust building and education, the Bean Club develops a slow-cooked community, committed to an emotional, seasonal, delicious rollercoaster in ways that challenge the industrial cadence of free two-day shipping.
Gift or commodity?
The Rancho Gordo Bean Club is undeniably a market exchange. Members pay $39.95 every quarter to receive six bags, each holding a pound of different beans. If you pay more, your box ships faster, and if you do not pay, you do not get a box; this much is certain. And yet many people’s affective relationships with their membership, with their beans, and with Rancho Gordo rises above the sum of its transactional parts.
Economic anthropology cut its teeth by describing gift economies and delineating patterns that differentiated them from market exchanges or barter. We often imagine these ways of circulating value to be categorically different from each other, yet many Rancho Gordo members seem to experience a blurring between market and gift exchanges when they receive their box. “It’s like Christmas comes four times a year!” is an oft-repeated comment on both the Facebook page and the online reviews, and the accusation that early photo posting was akin to “ruining Christmas” was the central component of the anti-spoiler camp’s pleas. Bean Club, of course, is not a gift from Rancho Gordo; it is a good for which you pay. Yet somewhere between the tissue paper, the surprise, the ritual, and the newsletter tucked into each box, this fact gets a little lost.
This may be related to the shifts in values and practices that Bean Club promotes among its members. The quarterly recipe newsletters joyfully share the newest varieties. But rather than suggest flashy entrees, they invariably insist that we remember to cook the beans more simply, more often. We are happily reminded that if Rancho Gordo has limited supplies of a sexy new variety like the violet Ayocote Morados or the toothsome Mayocobas, we, as cherished Bean Club Members, get priority access. These urgings connect shipper to club member individually and to a wider community of bean freaks, fostering attachment and social bonds through the exchange of gentle legumes. These connections lead to other forms of material exchange; members sometimes swap varieties to ensure everyone gets what they like. The summer 2020 box included an extra special addition: beautifully illustrated bean stickers. When one member asked if anyone would be willing to send him theirs to keep his sticker-crazed twins from fighting, dozens volunteered. Members transform commodities into various exchange forms of gifts to self and others.
Beyond these gifts, Rancho Gordo reminds Bean Club members that the act of cooking beans connects us to a larger, diverse history. Sando, “fretful of cultural appropriation” (Bilger 2018), tells us that cooking beans, “isn’t exotic and esoteric. It’s continuing traditions that are well-established for a reason.” He suggests that those of us who are immigrants to the Americas should learn what is from this continent and respectfully and joyfully incorporate those ingredients into our kitchens. For Rancho Gordo, this extends beyond eating. Confounding market logics, Rancho Gordo shares with the Seed Savers Exchange, and ships free beans every spring to anyone who wants to give home-garden bean production a try. This practice stands in sharp contrast to legal suits by corporate giants against farmers who save seeds. It also stands out against the highly extractive economies that develop around “super foods” (to our knowledge, no coordinated group aims to propagate mini-crops of quinoa from stock purchased at Whole Foods). Though the vast majority of Rancho Gordo members remain primarily eaters but not growers of beans, there is something noteworthy about the economic model of an artisan food company that unwaveringly supports and encourages seed saving, a basic tenet of food sovereignty.
In celebration of legumes
To answer the anthropologist Sarah Osterhoudt’s call to develop an “ethnographic ethic of positivity” (2019), we have highlighted some of the inner workings of the Rancho Gordo Bean Club. Out of the Bean Club grow shoots of anti-capitalist relations that help people to eat healthier and lower on the food chain. They also get to work out some complex community norms in addition to sharing Instagram-worthy photos of their food. Eating in ways that are better for the environment also gets sexy (if a bit gassy) in this exclusive association, one that can only grow as fast and as well as the beans themselves. This approach is not anti-market, but it bears certain hallmarks of diverse economies that the feminist economic geographers J. K. Gibson-Graham urged us to find—in progress and imperfect.
We imagine that Bourdieu is still screaming. Immanuel Wallerstein too. But we think we’ve got a read on how many beans make five by showing some of the things that the Rancho Gordo Bean Club does well. If diverse economies and foodways are ushered in by a charismatic gay man leading suburban Americans to celebrate legumes that arrive care of the United States Postal Service, maybe that is a little bit of what we want the world to look like. It’s delicious, and nutritious. It is a seedbed of diversity in a world of monocultures and of community in a world of individualism. A magical fruit, the more you eat, the more you… reduce carbon emissions and challenge capitalist logics. These beans. Maybe good for more than just your heart.
Bang Tran is a Vietnamese refugee living in Atlanta, Georgia, where he works as a designer and illustrator. He spends his free time fishing and making dumplings. See more of his work at bangctran.com.