Change Comes to Dinner: Convenience Food Childhood

A single, delicious heirloom bean variety changed Katherine Gustafson's mind about convenience food.

| May 2012

  • Change-Comes-To-Dinner-Cover
    “Change Comes to Dinner” is a smart and engaging look into America’s food revolution that takes readers into the farms, markets, organizations, businesses and institutions across America that are pushing for a more sustainable food system.
  • Food-Cans
    "'The Can-Opener Cookbook' became a bestseller upon publication in 1952, and the first electric can-opener burst onto the U.S. market in 1956. My mother’s youth coincided with the heyday of tuna casserole, canned soup, and TV dinners. Hers was a world of Chef Boyardee, Rice-a-Roni, Cheese Whiz, and Chex Mix."

  • Change-Comes-To-Dinner-Cover
  • Food-Cans

In Change Comes to Dinner (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), Katherine Gustafson introduces food visionaries like Mark Lilly, who turned a school bus into a locally sourced grocery store in Richmond, Va.; Gayla Brockman, who organized a program to double the value of food stamps used at Kansas City, Mo., farmers’ markets; and Tony Geraci, who claimed unused land to create the Great Kids Farm, where Baltimore City public school students learn how to grow food and help Geraci decide what to order from local farmers for breakfast and lunch at the city schools. In this excerpt, taken from the book’s introduction, “Our Country Deserves Better Than Cheetos,” Gustafson tells the story of her convenience-food childhood. 

It all started with beans.

That may seem like an unsexy way to begin (why not, you might ask, start with a pork tenderloin or a piece of chocolate cake?), but the beans I’m talking about are no ordinary beans.

Soaked overnight and simmered for four hours with star anise, a bay leaf, and a cinnamon stick, then flavored with a shake of salt and a dash of pepper, they are like nothing you’ve ever tasted. These beans are to the standard canned burrito-filler what steak is to Spam. Not since Jack and his stalk has a lowly legume made someone so quickly sit up and take notice.

While in my case there were no golden eggs involved, there nonetheless seemed to be something magical going on. How else could a food that I had always thought of as a necessary but uninspiring foundation for five-layer dip suddenly transform itself into something so utterly delicious you could eat them on their own for dinner? Not only that, but these beans had a name straight out of a fairy tale: Good Mother Stallard. Wasn’t that the name of the woman who lived in the shoe?

The Good Mother Stallard beans—their taste and their name and their amazing ability to completely satisfy my appetite—came to me like a revelation. That is, after they came to me dried from Napa, California, a one-pound bag of purple-and-white pebbles shipped in a cardboard box from a company called Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food.

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