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An Ode to Rice and Beans

By: Matthew Sorge

It’s Wednesday night and you are tired and hungry. What will you make? Pasta? Chicken nuggets? Salad? Pizza? Frozen dumplings in the back of the fridge? Everyone has their answer, but there is a fair chance you answered, perhaps reluctantly, rice and beans. This meal is cheap, filling, and easy to make explaining its general ubiquity among college students. Yet rice and beans have a deep, complicated history beyond the simple caloric requirements of hungry students.

Native to the Americas, beans have been a staple to the region for thousands of years often consumed with maize, squash, and various meats. The consumption of rice is also well established within the Americas including the highly sophisticated wild rice production of indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region. During the Colonial period, Europeans specifically enslaved certain groups of Africans to develop extensive rice production in the Americans from the Golden Rice of South Carolina to Bahian rice plantations. Generations of ancestral knowledge around cultural practices and germplasm along with the lives of millions of Africans were stolen and exploited to create one of the most profitable plantation economics in the New World. With enslavement came overproduction driving down the price of rice in the 18th century, thereby turning the grain into a cheap commodity promoting rice consumption on a large scale. These colonial systems of trade are the very foundation of our current global trade system paving the way for existing inequity and exploitation. Therefore, the story of rice and beans is largely the story of how our world came to be, more specifically our capitalist, racist food system. It is the story of generations of intimate knowledge of food, and the theft and commodification of this knowledge on a global scale.

However, it’s also the story of resilience, whereby individual lives and cultures persist to create something new and beautiful. Because rice and beans are beautiful. I know this may sound kind of unusual, but there is something incredibly freeing and thus rewarding in rice and beans. Together they form the perfect matrimonio providing the nine necessary amino acids for the human diet. They are rich in minerals, fiber, and low in fat. However, their shear versatility is what makes them truly beautiful.

There are countless variations that transcend culture and time. From sopa frijol negro in the Caribbean, red beans and rice in the American south, lima and pinto beans in Central America, and the bean saving traditions of Appalachia. There are many variations of rice to explore from brown rice, white rice, short grain, long grain, wild rice, black rice, etc. Use canned beans or soak the beans overnight. Caramelize onions and garlic in a pain beforehand. Cook them separately or cook them all together in a pressure cooker. Include various veggies or meats. The seasonings and spices are countless including cilantro, cumin, parsley, ginger, dill, paprika, coconut milk, curry powder, etc. Different bean varieties come with a host of flavorings and there are equally as mean different ways to pair with rice. Upon the foundation of the simple bean and rice grain, there are thousands of possibilities. Inevitably, we are part of generations of food history, something much larger than yourselves, but also beans and rice is an expression of our own individual identity. Rice and beans is a powerful reminder of the deep history and meaning of our everyday foods, ultimately telling us more about ourselves.

Below is a general outline of a bean rice recipe. There are countless variations and I encourage you to change this recipe to best fit you. Also, do not get to caught up in exact amounts for the spices just figure out what works best for you.

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