February 26, 2010

Thoreau's Beans: Let Them Work Their Magic On Your Stomach and Soul

When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop. It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans; and I remembered with as much pity as pride, if I remembered at all, my acquaintances who had gone to the city to attend the oratorios.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, The Bean-Field (1854)

Thoreau, patron saint of bean growers, wrote lovingly of his seven miles of beans even though they demanded his constant labour and careful attention. Thoreau eventually admits that his beans and the soil gave him strength, like Antaeus who only had superhuman powers while in contact with Gaia, his mother (and ours).

Beans are magic. Jack knew that. What he may not of known is that they are also one of the most diverse and nutritious food sources in this universe. The lowly legume, legendary in status, has earned mentions in sources as diverse as The Bible and Blazing Saddles.

Many varieties of legumes, the earliest food crop cultivated, were domesticated 7 000 years ago in Central and South America by native peoples. Spain thought gold was the important commodity of this area, but in actuality it is the 40,000 varieties of beans that represent their true, enduring wealth.

This humble and healthy food, often shunned because of associations with poverty and the hardships of the Great Depression (the last one, not the one we are currently experiencing), is indeed a gift from the gods of frugality. They are cheap, simple nutrition. So much so that when the going gets tough, the tough grab bags of beans and rice and head for the hills. You don't need much more, whether you live in a cave, or a house.

Take a look at all beans have to offer nutritionally:

No other food comes close to beans in providing protein, iron, magnesium, zinc, potassium and soluble fiber together in high amounts. Beans are a key ingredient in a healthy diet of all ages:

  • High in complex carbohydrates
  • High in protein
  • High in dietary fiber
  • High in folate
  • Low in fat
  • Low in sodium
  • Cholesterol-free
  • Rich in vitamins and minerals

The calorie content of one cup of cooked beans is equal to one cup of cooked rice, pasta, or a 7-ounce baked potato. Yet beans are substantially higher in dietary fiber. Beans are very low in sodium and offer many of the same nutrients as meat, but without the fat and cholesterol. They also provide more nutrients than a serving of oatmeal or oat bran.

Per capita consumption of beans is 3.4 kg/7.5lbs.


Beans are underused in the average diet, most people preferring the more expensive, and less healthy, protein alternative known as meat. There are 1.5 billion bovine units alone on this planet. They are walking/belching/farting leather bags of expensive, fat-marbled protein that are trashing our land, air and water, and eating a huge portion of the grain the world produces.

North American meat consumption is 123 kg/270 lbs per capita. If each American reduced his or her meat consumption by only 5 percent, roughly equivalent to eating one less dish of meat each weak, 7.5 million tons of grain would be saved, enough to feed 25 million people-roughly the number estimated to go hungry in the U.S. each day. http://www.worldwatch.org/node/1626

Colin Campbell, author of "The China Study", states, "We're basically a vegetarian species and should be eating a wide variety of plant foods and minimizing our intake of animal foods." A healthier state of affairs based on such a diet would see per capita consumption of beans at 123kg/270 lbs, and per capita consumption of meat around 3.4kg/7.5lbs. If Campbell is right, we currently have it backwards.

Colin Beavan, taking a different perspective in "No Impact Man", says, "Cattle raising turns out to be one of the top two or three contributors to the worst environmental problems around the planet at every level - from global to local."

Eating less meat, or no meat at all, is one of the most environmentally and socially responsible things one can do, rivaled in impact only by driving less or not at all. If you eat meat look for locally raised, grass-fed organic meat, often available at farmers markets.

Not eating meat can lower your personal carbon footprint by up to 1/4. That doesn't mean that you can drive 25% more if you become a vegetarian! Beans may not solve your transportation problems, but they can definitely help with reducing meat consumption.

There are lots of reasons to eat less meat, but fear not. Beans are waiting to fill in, and they promote good health, which is not something you are likely to hear about bacon, sausage or burgers.

Beans can form a central part of any diet. Include soybeans, lentils, and garbanzo beans (chickpeas), and peas. For maximum frugality, purchase beans dry and when on sale (when possible). Once you get used to preparing dry beans it becomes less of a hassle as you take their re-hydration into account in your cookery schedule. Cooked beans can be successfully frozen for quicker use later.

All beans come to us unprocessed and directly from the fields, and should therefore be picked through and rinsed before cooking. I have found the occasional bean-shaped clump of dirt while cleaning beans. Soaking overnight reduces cooking time, and some say it makes them more digestible and less prone to cause flatulence. I cook beans three cups dried at a time in my slow cooker (on low it takes about 8 hours).

Bean Measurements:

1 part dry beans equals:
  • 3 parts cooked beans

1 pound dry beans equals:
  • 2 cups dry beans, before cooking
  • 6 cups beans, after cooking
  • 4 15-ounce cans of beans

Favourite dishes around here are refried beans, baked beans, Jamacian rice, complimentary pie, black beans and rice, and bean-based veggie burgers.

Beans are a tasty wonder food. Try replacing one meat-based meal a week, to start, with a bean-based one.

Go ahead. Throw a few handfuls in a pot. See what happens. Let them work their magic on your pocketbook and your health. Thoreau loved 'em - you will, too.

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