Garbanzo Beans for Breakfast
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan names the social bond created by the sharing of a meal, “table fellowship,” and uses this as one of his several arguments against vegetarianism, suggesting that choosing to abstain from meat for ethical reasons may create socially uncomfortable situations. In his recent book, Eating Animals, novelist Jonathan Safron Foer responds dismissively to Pollan’s point by suggesting that “selective omnivores” (people who only eat meat raised in under certain, sustainable circumstances) are actually more socially awkward. While I don’t think social grace is of equal concern to the humane treatment of animals, and I don’t think being a difficult houseguest is any reason not to do something a person feels morally compelled to do, I think both authors are missing something, something that I was forced to see in Ghana: in some places, people don’t have the luxury of choosing their diet the way we do here, in the land of Whole Foods and 24-hour healthcare.
To Adjoa, it was inconceivable that I would voluntarily give up eating meat because meat, rare and expensive, is a crucial part of her children’s healthy diet. Without the (very) occasional animal meat they consume, their diet would be largely absent protein. And no amount of dried, boxed egg substitute, no can of garbanzo beans, nothing flown in from the United Nations in giant blue boxes will make up for that. So when I discovered chevon in my pepe soup at Adjoa’s table, I did not make a fuss. I did not remind her or my mother what being a vegetarian meant, or why I had chosen to become one. For most of the two weeks I spent in Ghana, I did what I did that night: I sat back and watched. I learned to sit quietly and observe a world that in no way resembled the world I thought I lived in.
Mostly, the people of Bechem eat high-starch carbohydrates. One night, we had fried yams—not sweet potatoes, which are not, in fact, of the yam family—but massive beasts of a root vegetable, dense white-yellow flesh sliced thin and fried in homemade corn oil, a sort of Ghanaian French fry. When Adjoa pulled them from the red clay soil of her vegetable garden, the yams were fully the length of my arm and three times the width, like an enormous, elongated potato. She spent the entire afternoon scooping the flesh out of the skin, mixing it aggressively with water in a big wooden bowl. Then, she placed the bowl on the ground and sat on a small wooden stool and pounded the yam flesh with a flat-headed stick, as her daughter-in-law spun the bowl, fast delicate hands barely missed by the insistent hammering of Adjoa’s stick. Only after all this could Adjoa boil the flesh, to fully remove all the toxins, then shape it into flat chips for frying.
We ate peeled cassava root, again boiled for safe consumption, another tuber vegetable resembling the potato, whose roots, when peeled, were the width of bananas, but long and bumpy, curved in strange places. The shape of the cassava root, like a thick tendril, finally made me realize that we actually eat roots—these looked like the gnarled roots of ancient trees. Yams and cassava are what nutritionists and anthropologists call staple crops. They are what grows in Ghana, and both are remarkably similar in taste, texture, use. Like a tougher, less flavorful potato, hard as rocks coming out of the earth, and so heavy with starch they nearly form dough in your mouth as you chew them.
We ate bananas (small, purple-green soft, sweet fruits, nothing like Chiquita), plantains, pineapple, mango. We ate canned food—lots of canned food—everything from milk to spaghetti with tomato sauce to garbanzo beans to water chestnuts. Since neither the Mensahs nor the entire population of Ghana have a reliable source of electricity, we ate what was non-perishable or what we could pick right before the meal.
My mother says that during her time there, the family ate meat on average about once a week—usually a chicken bought on the way back from church and slaughtered for Sunday dinner. Occasionally, they’d have a can of pickled mackerel, or a spare handful of beef or chevon traded at the market for some of Adjoa’s bread, which she produced in mass quantities to sell.
About once a week. And the Mensahs are, by far, the wealthiest family in Bechem.
While many people in the developing world eat or have available enough food in sheer caloric intake, livestock consumption provides a micronutrient-rich supplement to a staple-plant based diet in developing nations. Animal-source foods (including meat, milk and eggs) are particularly appropriate for combating the range of nutritional deficiencies faced by people in developing nations, providing them with additional iron, calcium, and zinc, and stabilizing a food supply which often fluctuates seasonally.
Beyond limited access to food, the developing world is full of people who have trouble eating even when food is available—like children whose stomachs are small, whose intake is physically limited, or HIV/AIDS patients whose bodies are slowing, sluggish, reduced to fulfilling basic needs, for whom digestion is a full day’s work. Because it provides such a high amount of protein per ounce, meat is uniquely poised to help fulfill nutritive requirements for those populations.
Sitting at the Mensahs breakfast table, choking down cold, grimy garbanzo beans for breakfast, I marveled at how easy it was for me to decide to stop eating meat, and what an impossible decision that would be for any of the residents of Bechem. As I mashed up the beans with my fork, trying to mix them into the cold eggs to mask the taste and texture, I wondered how I could possibly justify telling the Mensahs they shouldn’t eat animals because in my country meat causes heart disease, because in my country we raise far too much. Because in my country, it’s killing us.