In connection with my question about Pope Francis’s remark I posted today, there was the following statement in the same article of New York Times (July 29):

“In contrast, Francis spoke on the beach, engaged with the masses and was greeted like a rock star by followers entranced by his approachable style and homespun folksy adages. “You can always add more water to the beans,” he said at one point.”

What does “You can always add more water to the beans,” mean? What benefit do you get by adding water to the beans? How does it relate to the basic value of Christianity?

Do you have the counterpart English adage to this?

  • 3
    The beans rehydrate while cooking so you will have to watch them carefully and add more water whenever necessary, and you can add so much water you need whitout run the risk of having beans destroyed. But not even in Italy people use that adage, even if the metaphoric sense is understandable, +1.
    – user19148
    Jul 30 '13 at 11:20
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    This isn't really a question about English language usage. Jul 30 '13 at 16:51
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    @DJClayworth I agree but the OP didn't know that, and in the NY article it wasn't clear the Pope was saying a Latin American proverb. Maybe it will catch on, and you'll know exactly when, where and why it began! Naa...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 30 '13 at 17:05
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    @DJClayworth There's till part 3 of the OP's request to answer, though. That definitely will be related to the English language. Equivalent adages/proverbs in English or in Italian don't immediately come to mind.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 30 '13 at 17:16
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    @Marthaª Maybe how there will always be enough stone soup to go around. :)
    – tchrist
    Jul 30 '13 at 19:04

“To add more water to the beans” is a Latin America saying that means to share what we have with the extra people, to spread it around further. There are songs about this.

The English wording was just a word-for-word verbatim translation. The actual Latin American phrase would be one of these two, depending on just which one of the two dominant languages there was being spoken at the time:

  • Spanish: poner/echar más agua a los frijoles
  • Brazilian: botar mais água no feijão

It’s something of a catch-phrase there. See here, here, here, and here for a couple of examples in each of Spanish and Portuguese.

On this occasion, Papa Paco made his remark in Portuguese, saying sempre se pode colocar mais água no feijão — “one can always add more water to the feijão”. It’s a popular Brazilian saying. You can listen to the Pope saying this here. He has a bit of a Spanish accent, but it’s not bad. :)

A transcription of his speech reads:

Desde o primeiro instante em que toquei as terras brasileiras e também aqui junto de vocês, me sinto acolhido. E é importante saber acolher; é algo mais bonito que qualquer enfeite ou decoração. Isso é assim porque quando somos generosos acolhendo uma pessoa e partilhamos algo com ela – um pouco de comida, um lugar na nossa casa, o nosso tempo — não ficamos mais pobres, mas enriquecemos. Sei bem que quando alguém que precisa comer bate na sua porta, vocês sempre dão um jeito de compartilhar a comida: como diz o ditado, sempre se pode ‘colocar mais água no feijão’! E vocês fazem isto com amor, mostrando que a verdadeira riqueza não está nas coisas, mas no coração!

In other words, when we are generous and share a bit of food with someone, a place in our home, or our time, we are not left the poorer for it, but richer. He knows that the Brazilians will always find the means to share food with someone at your door who is hungry, because of the saying that one can always throw more water on the bean pot.

In English, we might simply say that “there’ll always be enough to go around”, or to “set another place at the table”.

  • Que vive Papa Paco! (I can't find the inverted exclamation point in Character Map. Grr...)
    – MT_Head
    Jul 30 '13 at 18:37
  • +1, but if I were you I would delete the "He has a bit of a Spanish accent, but it’s not bad. :)" part!
    – user19148
    Jul 30 '13 at 18:41
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    @MT_Head So now you get to insert “[pace Papa Paco]” into your speech wherever you can. It’s nearly impossible to say with a classical/hard C in the first word especially three times fast. :)
    – tchrist
    Jul 30 '13 at 18:56
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    This saying somehow reminds me of the old fable about stone soup, but I can’t quite put my finger on why.
    – tchrist
    Jul 30 '13 at 19:02
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    Yes, this answer is correct. A variant used in some parts is "echarle más agua al caldo" or adding more water to the soup. If you had cooked lunch for four, and a sudden visitor arrives, you can just 1 more cup of water (plus salt and seasoning) and all can share the meal. Be generous with what you have.
    – cabad
    Jul 30 '13 at 20:03

I was interested in that as well, and looking online it appears that it is a Latin American saying intended to encourage generosity. A suggestion to spread what you have even when it's not a lot.

  • 5
    Sounds very plausible and convincing. Would be better if you can include some citation(s).
    – Kris
    Jul 30 '13 at 12:47

To me this expression means simply that adding extra water to a pot of beans makes the soup thinner but yields more servings. It also echoes (as I'm sure the Pope was aware) the "loaves and fishes" episode in the New Testament, where Jesus and his followers despite having little for themselves (five small barley loaves and two fishes, according to John 6:9), miraculously feed thousands of people with them. In that case, of course, the food wasn't diluted or reduced to tiny serving portions prior to being distributed. But a poor person cooking beans can't count on miraculous multiplication of the ingredients.

In English, we have a somewhat related expression, notably favored by Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker:

There's always room for one more. Everyone take a little less.

indicating that a meal for an expected number can always be stretched to accommodate an unexpected guest. The website proz.com notes that a Spanish proverb says much the same thing:

Donde comen dos comen tres.

That is, "Where two eat, three eat."

The most relevant maxims related to generosity among the poor that I could find in The Facts on File Book of Proverbs (1983) are

Poor and liberal, rich and covetous.


The higher the hill, the lower the grass.

both of which imply that poor people are more open-handed than wealthy people are. I have never heard either of these expressions used in the United States.

  • My grandma (a Southerner who moved to California) had an expression that I've been trying to remember, very close to "you can always add more water..." (except it wasn't about beans.) The idea was that the door is always open to guests - even if there are more of them than you expected - and everybody gets to eat. It's driving me nuts that I can't remember it.
    – MT_Head
    Jul 30 '13 at 18:34
  • +1 for linking the proverb with the fishes and loaves "miracle" and for the equivalent English saying.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 30 '13 at 18:41

EDIT:2 Below was my first interpretation of the adage, which nevertheless led me to arrive at the correct conclusion. See EDIT at the end. Knowing how to cook has its advantages! :)

If you have ever tried cooking dried borlotti beans, you will know instantly what this piece of advice or more appropriately, adage, is referring to. These dried pulses popular in Italy and I imagine in Latin America too, need to be soaked first in cold water. Sometimes, depending how dry they are, 8 or more hours is necessary. (One of the factors why nowadays many prefer to buy the frozen or tinned variety) In boiling these beans, judging the quantity of water needed can be tricky. Too much and most of their goodness is dispersed in the water which is then thrown away. Such a pity and a waste. Too little, and you risk burning the beans. This happened to me once; a thick impenetrable layer of black crust at the bottom of the pan.

So, what many cooks do is to cover the beans with just enough water and while the beans boil keep an eye on the water level. As the beans absorb the water, more is added to "top up". Hence the Pope Francis's phrase: "You can always add more water to the beans" Obviously he was speaking metaphorically, I don't think he was actually giving cooking instructions. :)

enter image description here

EDIT: This adage or proverb is new to me. I've never heard it in either the UK or in Italy. In the context of the Papal visit in Brazil; source

"During a visit to a Rio slum, for instance, he said the poor are often the most generous folk, quoting a Latin American proverb: “You can always add more water to the beans.”

It suggests that even if new guests, unexpected visitors or friends arrive at your doorstep you can always share your food with them. In the example of the beans, it probably means that if you are making a zuppa di fagioli (bean soup), you can increase the portions simply by adding water.

  • OK: It's a metaphor. For what?
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 30 '13 at 16:14
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    Thanks. +1. I really don't think popes should speak in riddles!
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 30 '13 at 16:45
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    @Andrew, but I don't see my comment upvoted!
    – user19148
    Jul 30 '13 at 16:58
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    @AndrewLeach - The impression I got was that his intention was to relate to the crowd he was addressing - which seems to have worked, and gone over well. The fact that he used a locally-understood expression, which was picked up by international media and translated into various languages and then NOT understood by people who weren't anywhere near him at the time... not really his fault, I think. Popes aren't infallible except when writing/speaking ex cathedra; apparently they're not universally translatable either.
    – MT_Head
    Jul 30 '13 at 18:05
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    No, it doesn't @Carlo_R. The saying has nothing to do with: "To savour the taste of how good is the Lord" See Sven Yargs's answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 30 '13 at 18:55

It's simple, when you add water to the beans you're (theoretically) allowing more people to join to your meal. You can share more, divide your food with more persons just by adding water. It's a trick made by poor people who are unable to buy more beans for everyone, so it means a "fudge", in a good sense.

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