Washington Post food and dining editor Joe Yonan is a man obsessed. A man obsessed… with beans. On February 4, he published an entire cookbook, Cool Beans, focused on—you guessed it: beans. The book contains 125 different recipes including stews, dips, smoothies, and dessert, all including canned or dried beans—and before you think beans? in dessert???, trust us—it works surprisingly well, especially in Yonan's recipe for vegan chocolate mousse.
But Yonan isn't the only one with beans on the brain. Beans have become the foundation of an entire category of absurdist memes for the Very Online; meanwhile, the food scene is so into beans right now that membership to California bean supplier Rancho Gordo's "Bean Club" feels like the cool kids table of the food world. In any case, Yonan's happy that everyone's giving beans the attention they deserve.
While he was in New York to promote Cool Beans before the city went on lockdown, Yonan spoke with VICE about why everyone's losing it over beans and why these humble legumes are worth an entire cookbook.
Honestly, when I first started working on the book, I thought, "How am I going to come up with 125 recipes using beans?" By the end, I thought, "How am I gonna stop?"
The idea for Cool Beans came probably five years ago. I was thinking of my next book and about things that I'm interested in, so I was thinking about beans. In 2016, the United Nations declared the International Year of Pulses, and that was this big effort to make the point that that beans are actually an important crop for feeding the world: that they return nitrogen to the soil and that as a shelf-stable, cheap source of protein, they could actually be key to feeding a growing planet in an era of global climate change. I thought, "OK, I really want to do this now, and bring together my own culinary love of beans with a political, environmental message."
I came out as a vegetarian in 2012. I just wanted to eat better for my own health, and then I was also thinking about the environment and animals, too. I use the term "coming out," because I talked about it as being "my second coming out." A lot of what happened when I came out as a vegetarian reminded me of when I came out as gay, when I was 17 years old. There were people who pretty much asked whether it was just a phase—whether I, you know, just hadn't met the right piece of meat.
It's kind of ridiculous, but there were concerns that I wasn't somehow qualified to guide a major newspaper's food coverage if I didn't have an omnivorous diet, to which I've always responded: I have people who can taste things, and of course, I have a long memory—and I'm a journalist and I have a journalistic sensibility, so I'm curious about things. I don't have to taste things in order to understand them. The fact is we needed to do more recipes that were plant-based at the time, so I felt like I was really fulfilling a need.
I grew up in West Texas, so [I ate] a lot of Tex-Mex food and Mexican food. I travel to Mexico a lot, and my family background is Middle Eastern, which also involved so many beans—falafel and hummus. In college, I was really, really poor, and dried beans were one of the things that saved me. I couldn't have thought of a cheaper way to eat than by cooking a pound of black beans for $1.99.
Much later, of course, when I started to turn toward a plant-based diet—which was about nine or 10 years ago—beans became more and more important to me. When I discovered beans from Rancho Gordo, it was like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when it goes from black-and-white to color. I started to realize just how beautiful and variable beans could be and how delicious they can be.
Anytime you say that you want to tell people how to cook a pot of beans, one of the first things that they always say is, "Well, where's your smoky piece of pork?" There's this long-standing tradition of there being some sort of smoked meat in any pot of beans, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. But I wanted to prove to people that beans are fine and great and wonderful without that: that you can get a lot of flavor from the actual beans themselves. Any supermarket bean, if you cook it right, is going to be flavorful. I think people generally have—until fairly recently—discounted beans, as a source unto themselves of such goodness.
The most recent piece of beans' popularity has been more concern about the environmental implications of our diet in the face of global climate change. Then, the cult popularity of Rancho Gordo beans got more press. But the third aspect, which just cannot be discounted as possibly the largest influence, is the popularity of the Instant Pot—the fact that the Instant Pot has shown so many people that they don't have to soak the beans. All of a sudden, beans cooked from dry become a weeknight possibility now because of the Instant Pot. The problem with soaking beans is that you have this feeling that you're already behind, because you didn't think about it a day before. But one of the things that I've really tried to show people in Cool Beans is that soaking isn't necessary, even if you don't use an Instant Pot.
If it's a Sunday and I'm home puttering around, I'll do it on the stovetop. I cook a pot of beans a week, basically, except for the last six to nine months of Cool Beans—I was cooking much more than one pound of beans.
I did get tired of beans. When I turned in the book, I said to my husband, "I'm gonna do keto for a while"—and the vegetarian keto, called "ketotarian." After two and a half or three weeks went by, I missed beans. But I'm back.
As told to Bettina Makalintal. This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.