My dad often said he ate enough beans and rice pudding during the 1930s Depression and 1940s World War to last him a lifetime. If I never see them again, it will be too soon, he’d tell anyone thinking of serving them to him.
Those habits have carried over until today across North America and Europe, even though there are a host of reasons to change. The post-World War 11 enshrining of meat over former staples such as beans and grains has proven to be a mistake for public health and the environment. Today’s bad memories will be of lives and pleasures cut short by too few, not too many, seeds and grains.
This year, the United Nations calls for a global celebration of pulses. Beans are no longer has-beans.
I went to the feast to launch the celebration in Toronto, and came away thinking the organizers of that feast had a handle on my top principles of winning people over to needed changes.
1. The first principle is to show by example, not ranting. It’s time to move on from “the vision thing” and the same-old/same-old commitments to do something sometime before 2050, and instead show how people can “be the change they want to see.” That’s so easy to do with food, it’s amazing it took so long before this feature of food was put center-of-plate.
The first purpose of the feast was to show that cooking and eating pulses (the word for seeds and beans) is both simple and pleasant. For a remarkably low cost, they can be smuggled into pasta sauces and soups, for example — no major retooling with a whole new series of skills, and no dealing with family members who would scream if they were told they’d be swearing off meat from here on in.
Principle 1: Easy does it.
The second purpose of the feast was to show that cooking and eating pulses is glamorous – not something poor people do to survive but something people do because it’s tasty and healthy and good for the environment. The dishes ranged from bean flours mixed in with pastries to beans as a perfect mixer in a meat and veggie tortilla. And the setting was the beautiful Design Exchange in the heart of downtown Toronto.
Principle 2: Strut the positive opportunity with change.
The third principle was to bring opposite ends of the food system’s producers and consumers together, instead of giving over all the connecting power to supermarkets and TV ads. The feast was put on for city folks, but the organizers wisely brought in some farmers, and allowed us to see the world through their eyes.
I had a long talk with John Bennett, a a very smart bean grower from Saskatchewan. He explained to me that beans and grains were not only a good match of complementary proteins on the plate, but an even better match of the complementarities in the soil. By rotating crops each year — beans one year, grains the next — he confuses the pests, which means there’s way less need for toxic pesticides.
The virtuous circle continues, Bennett told me. Beans bring down nitrogen from the air and transfer this vital element of fertilizer to the soil; grains take up the enriched soil next year. Bean roots also break up the soil differently from grains, and create a lively underground life for the creepy-crawlies that create pathways for water to settle in, which helps beans deal with drought.
So pulses need little of the water or artificial (gas-based) fertilizer that steady planting of livestock feeds requires.
Principle 3: Help people see through other eyes.
Finally, the evening feast showed how Big Change can happen at Small Margins. The campaign wants to see people eat half a cup more of pulses a week than they ate before 2016. Barely noticeable over a week’s sauces, soups or pastries, the change shows up big time when a billion people in North America go back to the pulses their forebears grew up on.
Half a billion cups a week makes for a lot less fossil fuel fertilizer and water a week. That’s a lot of leverage for Big Change.
Principle 4: Change happens at the margins.
A heck of a lot more to celebrate than a hill of beans — which we now need to see as a very good and tasty thing.
Here’s a brief article explaining some of the details that make a hill of bean’s worth of difference:
Photo credit: Pulses by Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom