Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: Making the Earth Say Beans


“. . . . [M]aking the earth say beans instead of grass . . . ” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden).

Evagrius, you’ve encouraged me to keep writing about food, though I’m down these days.  Others have issued similar appeals to me. 

So though it seems a bit like going from the sublime to the ridiculous to talk about beans when I’ve been talking about popes and presidents, maybe that subject does, indeed, deserve equally serious attention.  Or perhaps more serious attention than popes and presidents deserve.

Besides, this gives me a chance to use one of my favorite quotes from Thoreau, which I love for all kinds of reasons: it’s a typical, seemingly off-the-wall, Thoreauvian aperçu that illuminates just about everything he did and said.  Thoreau himself made the earth say beans instead of grass.

He did so because he wanted to live with an integrity he found he couldn’t sustain, living in constant close contact with the human communities around him.  He needed the isolation of Walden Pond (and of the Maine woods) to rediscover the voice at the heart of it all, which never ceased speaking to him as he dealt with his countrymen’s (and therefore his own) seemingly intractable enmeshment in the abhorrent system of chattel slavery.

Long before the Lappés began to write about eating lower on the food chain, Thoreau had divined that the cattle to which we gave abundant edible vegetable resources, so that we could eat their meat, grew hale and hearty on a diet of grass alone, or grass augmented by grain.  Thoreau challenged the notion that we should make the earth yield grass in order to make it yield meat, and he did so as a political act, an act in defiance of a social system that sought to enmesh him in manifold injustices that ranged from abetting hunger in much of the world to aiding the continuation of chattel slavery.

And so beans, which Thoreau grew in abundance at his little cabin by Walden Pond.  For his own use.  As a staple of his diet.  As an outward sign of his inward journey towards integrity in a world that often robs us of integrity, if we do not wrest a struggle against it.

Beans.  Beans have been on my mind lately, as well, because there has recently been a hot discussion of beans and barbecue on the blog of my statewide free paper, the Arkansas Times.  Get people in my area talking about chili and barbecue in the middle of winter, when folks long for hearty, savory dishes, and you’re bound to get an earful—of strongly expressed opinions that conflict with other equally strongly expressed opinions.

Beans entered into this blog’s discussion of chili because some local food writers had suggested that the chili used to top a chili dog must nevernevernever contain beans.  In response, some bloggers suggested that chili must nevernevernever contain beans, period.

One contributor whose identity I happen to know went so far as to say that Southerners in general consider beans in chili heresy.  How this gentleman would know that, I’m not sure, since he came to Arkansas from California and grew up in the West—and never succeeds in getting much of anything about the state right, as he rants on the Arkansas Times blog.

Friends of mine who know his past tell me he came to the hills of northern Arkansas to raise pot, but switched to blueberries when that crop became more lucrative (and perhaps less legally dangerous to grow).  They attributed the man’s off-base rants about Arkansas folks and Arkansas ways to the effects of some major pot-smoking for many years now.

I wouldn’t know about that.  To my way of thinking, he’s fairly typical of the Goldwater Republican he constantly reminds us he is: more interested in his freedom than the liberty of others, and completely tone-deaf to the class and economic divisions that rend the social fabric of the nation.  He is also a white heterosexual man who claims to be a defender of gay rights, though he has participated in some nasty attacks on a few gay folks I know, while slamming them for any criticisms they make of the Catholic church, since his wife is Catholic.  As you may recognize, I don’t have a high opinion of this person.

And I say all that to frame what I’m now about to say: beans are and have long been integral to chili throughout the American South.  They are part and parcel of our rendition of chili (Texas is, of course, a case apart, and much of Texas is just not the South) because we have the distinction of being one of the discrete parts of these United States that have actually known hunger—real, protracted physical hunger—for a good part of our history. 

People were hungry during and after the Civil War, and they experienced hunger on and off in parts of the American South right through the American Depression.  When a friend of mine from Minnesota tried to tell me some years back that no one would ever really have to face being hungry in this land of plenty, because food is always there, I didn’t believe him.

I’ve heard too many family stories that suggest the opposite to me—stories about the hunger of the Civil War period in which not even flour could be bought, and many farms were raided and robbed not just of food, but of livestock essential to raise crops.  And stories about the Depression years, when my mother’s family fed neighbor children who told them, with great reluctance, that they had only raw onions and crackers to eat many days.  People have often been hungry in my region, and remained hungry because they were too proud to admit to anyone, least of all family members, that their larders were totally bare.

Beans matter in such circumstances.  They are fairly easily raised with a minimum of effort, and they yield in abundance even when they’re neglected.  They’re a staple that keeps for long periods of time.  Only a small patch of beans can provide abundant seed for a whole new crop of beans, with plenty left over for human or animal consumption.

And, perhaps most important of all, beans fill hungry stomachs when more expensive food—particularly meat—can’t be bought.  For that reason, beans have become synonymous in my region with po’ folks’ tables—though that has not stopped many Southern families from eating beans with relish even when they can afford more meat.  Many of my family’s meals as I grew up centered on pinto or white beans and cornbread, though we knew there was a stigma attached to such food. 

We didn’t care.  We enjoyed the beans.  As an aunt of mine often said, she vowed during the Depression that when she grew up, she would never eat a bean again—only steak, morning, noon and night.

But she grew to love beans so much that she seldom bought steak.  Beans and cornbread were all she needed and wanted. 

Because of their nutritive value, their ability to nourish large families with little money, beans have always figured in a wide range of dishes cooked in the Southern kitchen, even when they do not occupy such a central role in other American regional variants of the same dish.  Vegetable soup—a staple of our traditional tables—is unthinkable without a good proportion of beans.

As is chili, which in my family, was stretched even further with a bit of cooked macaroni added at the end.  We liked it that way.  Too much meat quickly bores the palate and jades the stomach.  Beans not only fill a body up; they also taste good.  And they have a silky, rich mouthfeel that makes them a much-desired appetizer in places as far apart as Italy, and Japan, and a main dish in places like Latin America and India.

Moreover, as Thoreau recognized (and he was surely echoing here, in part, the longstanding New England tradition of bean-eating, inherited both from England and native Americans), beans contain high-quality protein that can and should be more central to human diets than meat.  Combined with grain or dairy products, in fact, they contain an almost perfect protein for human consumption.

Undoubtedly this is at least in part why beans have long been a staple of the diets of so many cultures, including native American culture, with its beans-corn diptych.  I suspect that, long before scientists had worked out the nutritional value of this combination (or of the combination of beans with rice or cheese), native peoples had intuited that value.

As Michael Pollan now reminds us, we shouldn’t eat any food our great-grandmothers wouldn’t have recognized as food.  There’s a huge, valuable, (and threatened) store of wisdom in many of the traditional foodways of cultures around the world.  In losing those folkways, we are in danger of losing not only a heritage, but our vital, healthy contact to the natural world that sustains us.

So when people tell me I don’t know beans, I take that as a very serious insult, indeed.  Not knowing beans is bad business.