My kingdom for a legume!

The heartland doesn't know beans
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› paulr@sfbg.com

Today's homeland traveler must run a gauntlet of tribulation, beginning with the holy sacraments of shoe doffing and toothpaste Ziplocking and continuing to flight delays and $10 for an airborne box of chicken salad, but at the end of all the woe and insult is the comfort of knowing that there's more where that came from, generally in the form of superfluous starch.

I noticed, in the course of several days spent recently in the heart of the heart of the country, that a broad no-legume policy seemed to be both unstated and strictly observed. Restaurants high and low didn't offer so much as a lentil or chickpea, and as for breakfast at Denny's or Perkins, where I went each morning with my squad of elders, you could have potatoes with your bread, or bread with your potatoes, you could have eggs a thousand different ways — in pastry! with cheese! — and cinnamon buns and oceans of weak coffee, and after all that you knew better than to think about glycemic indexes or your blood sugar level. Oatmeal? Consult the small print at the bottom of the laminated page.

At a nice Italian restaurant in St. Paul, Minn., I clicked my heels together three times and waited for Garrison Keillor to come through the door from his redoubt on nearby Summit Avenue. He did not; was this because he too is distressed at the lack of legumes in Lake Wobegon and its environs? Or was he at Perkins, chomping his way through mountainous platefuls of hash browns and bread?

Minnesota's Twin Cities are hardly unsophisticated. St. Paul, in fact, has a Jewish deli, Cecil's, that's at least the match of any such place I knew in Chicago and far better than any deli here. But Jewish delis, no matter how wondrous their rye breads, aren't known as hotbeds of legume culture, and if a good Italian restaurant doesn't even have a white-bean soup or salad on the menu, what hope is there?

Does this matter? Yes. Legumes — whether white or black or cranberry beans, lentils, or chickpeas — are among nature's near-perfect foods. They're tasty, healthy, and flexible; they make good main dishes and side dishes, and they work in soup and as beds for other things. If you're on your way to Lake Wobegon, don't leave home without them.

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