Brianna Johnson / Sun Contributor

March 1, 2020

Food Ethics | Beans and Bread

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The 40-acre farm in Hawai’i which I called home for the fall of 2017 was riddled with homemade signage. Pieces of wood were painted to remind that there was  “no toilet” and to “use tree! ,” to teach you “proper poopage” in a compost toilet and to tell you to “Get naked!” in the shower. There was also less informational signage that reinforced some important life lessons like “be with the flow” and to “eat your food like water, and your water like air.” One of these signs hung in a particularly prominent place next to the picnic tables at which we ate. It was framed by bunches of ripening plantains and written with a washed out orange and pink paint. While the other signs on the farm were helpful reminders and small pieces of encouragement, this sign was a little different. Before each meal, I took the time to read it; it was hard to ignore: “The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.”

When I was in high school my family very rarely shared a meal together. My three siblings and I each played sports year-round, and my dad worked late hours. On the rare occasion when we were able to share a meal, our kitchen table only sat five. So my mom would be left standing, which detracted from the experience a bit. I think community is hard to experience when there is inequality, however miniscule.

While we rarely were able to eat together, it wasn’t something I ever questioned. I ate food because I needed to and because I liked the taste. What more to food was there? In thinking about our food, where it comes from and its impact, I think it’s also interesting to consider the cultural impact of what and how we eat. In distancing ourselves from our food so severely, we are also distancing ourselves from the experience of a shared meal. Food is the very basis of our society as biological beings, so it makes sense that it could also be the cultural basis of our society. Out of shared necessity, we may be able to find community.

This week, soup and bread gave me the community I was yearning for. One morning, I started the day by placing my dried beans in a water bath where they would soak for about eight hours as I attended class, extracurriculars and work. Using dried beans as the base of a soup provides one of the cheapest, healthiest and most Earth-friendly options (besides local, organically grown fresh produce, of course). To me, soaking the beans turned the preparation of the meal into more of a “process.” The extra effort it took to soak these beans, instead of using them straight from a can, is extremely minimal, but made the soup feel like a much greater accomplishment at the end of the day.

The “recipe,” or loose set of guidelines, for this soup came from my uncle (an ex-marine and devout carnivore), who got creative this winter and tried to concoct a soup for me and my younger sister, so that we could have a vegetarian alternative at Christmas dinner. The effort and thought that went into this advanced planning was something I had actively sought to avoid when I first became a vegetarian. It made me uncomfortable to think I was forcing people to adjust their plans to accommodate my self-imposed dietary lifestyle. Now that my sister and I were in this together, though, it gave me more footing and confidence. This Christmas I felt extra thankful to be surrounded by people who care enough about me to experiment with recipes. Cooking this soup is always a helpful reminder to keep in touch with family, so I sent my uncle a text at the end of the day, sharing my creation.

While soup reminds me of my uncle, bread unequivocally reminds me of my mother. I immediately imagine her roughly kneading a loaf of bread on our countertop with flour flying from every surface. My family may not have been able to share many meals together, but we were almost never lacking a home cooked meal. Bread was something very few of us kids would complain about, so it was integrated into many meals. Varying calzones, pizzas and biscuits were staples of our diet. Bread reminds me of my mom, her devotion to our family and her unyielding strength. When I finished baking a loaf to accompany my soup, I sent her a text as well.

uncooked loaf brianna

Brianna Johnson / Sun Contributor

In this way, beans and bread connect me to a community I am separated from by hundreds of miles — my home and my family. They are a community I constantly strive to remember and keep in contact with, as it was their upbringing, confidence and unconditional support that allowed me to come to Cornell and pursue studies I love.

This meal and week of bread making connected me with my community at Cornell as well. When the food was finished, I sent a text to many of my friends, inviting them over for a warm meal. I was able to enjoy soup, bread and homemade fudge in the comfort of my apartment surrounded by close friends, some of whom I had not yet seen all semester. Barbara Kingsolver, author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, said that American culture doesn’t allow for slow reflection, but maybe a warm meal on a cold Thursday night does. It certainly did for me.


Some general guidelines for a 15-bean vegetarian soup:

  1. Set out two to three cups of beans to hydrate overnight, or for at least eight hours throughout the day (about eight cups of water is usually sufficient, and a dash of salt can also add flavor).
  2. Chop up one to three medium-sized onions and cook on low heat over oil or butter.
  3. When onions are sufficiently cooked (they will begin to appear translucent), add vegetable stock and beans (drained).
  4. Let simmer for around one hour.
  5. Add chopped potatoes and any other vegetables (celery, carrots, corn, peas, green beans or any others available).
  6. Let simmer for another hour or until potatoes are soft. Season to taste and enjoy!


Brianna Johnson is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]