I’ve recently received a lot of messages and comments regarding how “un-paleo” my recipes are.
Yes, I cook with beans. No, I’m not sorry. Nor do I claim them to be “paleo”, because nothing we eat today is actually paleo as in “things people ate during the paleolithic era”. The concept of a “paleo diet” in popular culture is not informed by anyone familiar with the archaeological record.
Here’s the SparkNotes version:
Beans grew wild (without cultivation) in Africa and Asia before we had record of their introduction to the Americas. Considering the fact that indigenous pre-Colombian societies cultivated beans and thrived on them as a dietary staple, this could be an opportunity to discuss the Bering Strait, or how the first peoples of the Americas arrived here.
I won’t claim that pre-Colombian is synonymous with paleo, because it isn’t. I will state that during the paleolithic era, people ate legumes. Bean varieties that during the Agricultural Revolution—and later the Industrial Age—were artificially selected, by humans, to become the varieties we recognize as “beans” today.
Where do you think pre-Columbian peoples came up with the brilliant idea to cultivate beans? In other words, beans didn’t evolve after we did. They were there, in the wild, and we noticed them as we began to create the cultural forms that define our lives today.
One might wonder while reading this, why we don’t often associate beans with the diet of the first humans.
In the paleolithic era—humans did not eat the things we now call pinto, kidney, soy, lima, black beans, chickpeas, fava beans*, broad beans, white beans or navy beans. If that makes you wonder why—it’s because those varieties didn’t exist in the paleolithic era. Just as the cow didn’t, but its bovine ancestor did.
People ate a lot of things during the paleolithic era that would irk most people on the “paleo diet” today. Yes, they ate meat. But said types of meat weren’t boneless, skinless chicken breast, hard-boiled eggs, or bun-less kobe beef sliders. They ate insects. Organ meats. The brains of primordial bovine creatures (the ancestors of the cow). Hearts. Placenta. Liver. Hooves (how do you think we came up with the concept of gelatin?). We hadn’t yet developed the social constructions involving what is “good to eat”. This is why in different parts of the world, what is “good to eat” is not the same in Korea, for example, as it is in North America. In the Andes (South America, i.e. Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia) cuy (guinea pig) is a delicacy. That probably grosses you out, since you most likely cared for a guinea pig as a pet when you were a child, or knew someone who did.
Any meaning we attribute to anything is the result of a cultural or societal construct. So, “are beans paleo?" No. Beans are as un-paleo as beef.