A few days ago, when I was working on my black bean hummus, I heard a story on NPR about a recent USDA study that claims healthy food is actually cheaper than all the junk food that makes Americans fat. Of course this is striking because conventional wisdom, since Food, Inc., has held that it is cheaper to eat fast food hamburgers and soda than it is to buy broccoli or pears.
The part of the story that most struck me claimed that legumes—particularly dried beans—are the best, or most economical, source of protein. Ironically, as I was listening to the NPR story I was having to research how to cook black beans. I’m a pretty smart guy—I have a freaking Ph.D.—and I cook a lot. Moreover, I consider myself a pretty astute home cook because my “cooking” is more than reheating frozen meals or churning out Hamburger Helper. I can cook chicken to a safe temperature without a thermometer. I can do the same thing with boneless pork chops without drying them out. I can cook shrimp about a dozen different ways without any cookbooks or cheat sheets; I can shuck fresh oysters . . . . Yet, when I wanted to make my hummus I couldn’t remember exactly how to deal with the beans, this simple, affordable protein.
I have no problem with the USDA declaring that it is indeed possible to eat a healthy diet on the cheap, but I do have a problem with the assumption that people can actually pull this off, today, right away. To make my black bean hummus I had to boil the beans two minutes and let them sit two hours, then I had to cook them another hour or so, until they were tender. Of course I could have let them soak in water overnight and then boiled them for that additional hour. Telling people who are working two jobs, taking kids to and from school, relying on too much fast food, handling homework, and trying to get those kids to bed to work more dried legumes into their diet is like telling me that my bread would be way cheaper if I bought wheat in fifty-pound sacks and pounded it into flour myself. As a society, we simply don’t know how to cook any more, and we need to make much greater changes than simply knowing what to do—even if I thought pounding wheat would be cool and cheap, I have no idea how to do it and certainly don’t have the equipment.
More food education would help, as might living wages and/or general wage increases for the lower-and-middle-classes that have experienced at least a decade of wage stagnation. Heck, maybe we should shorten the standard workday to seven hours so that more people could get home in time to cook dinner. I would bet that if we could combine knowing what to do with being able to afford it and the time it takes, more people would be at home cooking dinner.