In Defense of the Humble Bean


Blog post by Nassim Nobari, currently in Chiapas, Mexico for a research project on changes in food culture. You can follow my personal blog here.

There are two people from Mexico City at my hostel whose diet could not contrast more starkly with the traditional indigenous diet of the region. Quesadillas with cheese and ham, instant chicken soup and a glass of diluted milk to wash it down. The tortillas, of course, are made of wheat.

They shared that in Mexico City, beans are very much associated with poverty and are seen as something a laborer would eat. This is a common theme around the world: legumes provide most of the protein of agricultural societies’ diets but as soon as people have the means, they replace legumes with meat. As a resource-intensive food, meat has always been associated with wealth and class. Some would argue that this is bolstered by the inherent act of domination that acquiring the meat entails.

In addition to providing healthy protein, legumes contain fiber and a host of other nutrients, without the saturated fat of animal flesh. And while nitrogen-based fertilizers are an ecological nightmare, legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, increasing the soil’s fertility in a sustainable manner. Compare the monocropped rows of the Corn Belt to the traditional Mesoamerican milpa, in which corn and beans are grown together. The beans fix the nitrogen necessary for the corn to grow and this holistic approach to agriculture is reflected in a holistic approach to food. Indeed, the corn and beans provide the plant-based foundation of a diverse and nutritionally complete diet.

The UN has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses to encourage the appreciation and use of pulses and legumes. Millahcayotl will be holding an event in San Francisco this year to highlight the importance of legumes in dietary traditions around the world, reflect on the cultural significance of the predilection for meat, and share tasty and cheap recipes. In addition to being about sustainability and health, the International Year of Pulses is fundamentally anti-classist. We are excited to join our voice to the conversation.

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