The Long Winter of Beans

I was preparing to write something serious and literary when I happened to weigh myself this morning. To my horror, I discovered that I had mysteriously gained several pounds overnight. I rushed out to confront my husband.

“Did you notice –?”

“Me too!” We shouted simultaneously.

Despite attempts to convince ourselves that our bathroom scale was broken, I could only conclude that our izakaya excesses had taken their toll. In some ways, I’m amazed at how far society has come. At no other point in history has food been so plentiful yet readily abused. My 7 year old tells me that his classmates who get the school hot lunch routinely toss most of it, unopened, into the garbage. Although I’m appalled by this waste, I can’t say I blame them since school lunch tends to be heavily processed food encased in plastic. There’s no such thing as a school cafeteria here, and not even the pretense of cooking. I volunteer once a week and can’t help but be boggled by the food supplied, such as a corn dog and chocolate milk. A corn dog, for those unfamiliar with this uniquely American phenomenon, is a hot dog dipped in corn batter and deep fried on a stick. I don’t know how this fairground treat became acceptable as a lunch staple for small children, but it was probably passed by the same bureaucrats who decided that ketchup qualified as a school “vegetable”.

In stark contrast to this, we’re reading The Long Winter at home, the seventh book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series, which details in simple, clear language the hardships of a particularly bad winter on the prairie. The strengths of this book, like all the others in the series, lie in its interesting and heartfelt narrative which captures the bleakness of pioneer life without depressing the reader. But what I’m particularly struck by is the food. The Ingalls family, even during the best of times, seem to subsist on mostly fat salt pork, bread, pease porridge, and whatever game Pa can hunt. Treats like white sugar and white flour cakes are described in loving detail as the rarities they were, and fresh vegetables are only available in summer.

Now, I’m not very familiar with American history so I was intrigued by this diet, which seemed crushingly monotonous and dependent on dry goods brought from “back East” and a wheat harvest. In The Long Winter, when the trains stop running due to blizzards, the townsfolk are in danger of starving to death and Laura’s family is reduced to eating a few shriveled potatoes and brown bread made from wheat ground in a coffee grinder. I’m sure it was not a good diet, and it makes me wonder what condition their teeth were in. (By the way, whenever anyone asks me “what time period would you have liked to live in?” I always answer “Now, of course.” Nobody seems to think about the wonders of dental care or laparoscopic surgery whilst channeling Cleopatra, but I really don’t think they should be overlooked).

So when my kids clamored to eat a “historical meal”, despite the temptation to serve them a boiled potato and a piece of brown bread, I decided to give them beans instead. Kale and white bean soup is readily made in bulk and, if the recipients are easily enthralled, can be fed to them day after day.

bean-soupDay 1: 

Me: “You lucky, lucky pioneers! We had a great bean harvest this year and we’re having kale and bean soup!”

Children: “Hooray!”

Day 2: (packed as school lunch with bread and butter and a bit of pork sausage)

Me: “This is what German peasants ate. Rich ones too — notice the sausage?”

Children: “Hooray!”

Day 3:

Me: “Bad news, the potato harvest has failed. We’re going to starve. What shall we eat?”

5 year old (anxiously rummaging in fridge): “There’s some soup left!”

I’m sure you get the idea… Unfortunately, I don’t think this method is going to work much longer but I’m going to milk it while I can (although it’s rather tiresome to spend dinner time pretending to be a peasant). But beans are much, much better for you than a corn dog. Maybe if I stuck to them I might be able to fit back into my favourite skirt soon.

Book Suggestions:

  • The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell — another book which makes me grateful for the food that’s so easily available to us.

Snack Suggestion:

  • Kale and white bean soup – I like this recipe, and often add fresh tomatoes. No need to separate the ribs from the kale leaves if you chop it finely enough and add the kale at the same time as the beans so it cooks longer.

Photo 1: Some heirloom beans I got at the farmer’s market. The cute ones that look like orca are called Badda, and the other ones are Hutterite. Photo 2: Kana Okada via

What under-appreciated food do you like to eat?

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14 responses to “The Long Winter of Beans”

  1. Really enjoyed this post! I’m beginning to realize how my daughter Mia, raised in this era of plenty and choice, expects her food to be tantalizingly tasty, otherwise it doesn’t not deserve to be eaten. What ever happened to just plain nourishment of hunger? I guess we’re just not hungry enough.

    • That’s a really good point — when was the last time any of us actually felt really hungry? (Well – discounting the mysterious pangs for a peanut butter sandwich that I always get at midnight). Seriously, we almost never have to deal with deprivation and most common thing that I hear in parent-child interactions is the parent trying to coax the child to eat. Very different from just a century ago (or other countries now) where children were starving and hollow-eyed.

  2. Historical hardship stories totally make food taste better! Nothing’s ever tasted better to me than the bowl of Campbell’s minestrone and slice of bread I had after watching Schindler’s List.

    • Too true! Unfortunately back then, there were probably daily reminders of hunger in a form that we rarely see today. Isn’t interesting how older people are usually much more sensitive to food wastage? Nowadays, I hear a lot of people say “Oh, just toss it — spend your calories on something else”…

  3. loved reading laura ingalls wilders but enjoyed watching the series even more! somehow my girls haven’t gotten into the books so much and the one episode we watched together (the christmas one) made chloe burst into tears. maybe i’ll try the kale and bean soup!

    • Yes, the series was classic. We even got it for a short time in Malaysia, and for years afterwards, my mother thought Laura’s name was really “Nora” and told me so. This really confused me when I first came to the US…

  4. I enjoyed this post, especially the contrived notion of modern day Americans or Malays eating American pioneer diets 3+ days!
    The underappreciated food I readily enjoy, to my detriment or not, is hot dogs. Especially do I appreciate those so readily available at the Alewife Station/Cambridge.

  5. Have you seen Midnight in Paris? Cute movie that tackles that very question, of choosing “the perfect time period” — perhaps the future is what we should/would all choose. I bet we’ll be able to grow new teeth then 🙂

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