Death by Bean Feed

For many Americans, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season, a month-plus span of festivities, family, and perhaps most of all, food. Indeed, overeating might seem inevitable this time of year. Whether it be turkey, pumpkin pie, or any other seasonal delight, the next few weeks will allow revelers ample opportunities to gorge themselves. Overindulgence, however, is not without its hazards, as one piece of South Dakota lore makes clear. According to Unfinished Histories: Tales of Aberdeen and Brown County, a short volume of local history compiled in 1938, the first recorded death in the “hardy young city” of Aberdeen was that of “a Civil War veteran who is reported to have died from overeating at a friendly bean feed.”

I stumbled on this grimly comical anecdote while doing background research for an upcoming article in South Dakota History. Unfinished Histories is a product of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency that put hundreds of writers and researchers to work documenting American life during the 1930s. As WPA Administrator Harry Hopkins puts it in the book’s preface, the agency aimed to paint “a portrait of America—its history, folklore, scenery, cultural backgrounds, social and economic trends, and racial factors.” The Federal Writers’ Project produced a slew of books that attempted to capture what made locales across the nation unique, balancing basic facts with colorful stories. The bean-feed tale certainly falls into the latter category.

It is impossible to know whether anyone had died in Aberdeen prior to that fateful feast or if overeating was indeed the cause of this man’s apparent demise. What we do know is that the bean feed in question was not an isolated event. In Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes a “New England Supper” at a church in De Smet where “baked beans & bread were scattered along the tables.” Churches regularly hosted these events to raise funds, and while the menu varied, beans were often the main dish. A search for “bean feed” in early South Dakota newspapers yielded scant results, suggesting that either the term or the event itself fell out of favor after statehood, but some Brown County residents kept up the practice. A 1919 Aberdeen American article announced a local Boy Scout troop’s plan to host one such event. In neighboring Minnesota, meanwhile, bean feeds hold a surprisingly important place in state politics. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) sponsored a series of massive bean feeds in Minneapolis well into the twentieth century, including one President John F. Kennedy famously attended in 1962. Local DFL branches still frequently host bean feeds, and countless key figures in both state and national politics have enjoyed the fibrous fare offered at these fetes.

Whether or not the first death in Brown County came as the result of overeating, there is a lesson to be learned here: when celebrating the holidays or attending a “friendly bean feed,” moderation is a savvy choice.

Cody Ewert