Written by Véronique Hykoulchik, CNN
Meet the chickpea: The ingredient that powers this year’s Italian dish of the moment, risotto con radicchio. Just last year, most people will have known only by name: the humble vegetable so beloved in ’90s-era American bbq that everyone from the president to Kobe Bryant ate it.
So what’s the story of chickpeas? Which brand exists in which quantities? Which snorts, slurps and waves make this food known?
There’s an easy solution that aims to dig deep into the intricacies of the chickpea’s history. A new toolkit, on hand at the St. Louis Brewers Festival , directs its users to places where it’s been grown, stored and cooked.
From humble beginnings
The toolkit itself is an illustration of how a single ingredient can have immense influence on the history of a culture. Chickpeas were first developed as grain in the American Northwest, a region that experiences intense climate fluctuations: “What was once just a crop may now only be a store,” John Dicicco, author of “The Vine Popping Impressions of the Greater Pacific Northwest,” writes.
By 1683, William Petersen purchased a plot of land in New York and began farming and drying chickpeas and other legumes. The supplier of those beans for Peterson was the Missouri River Tribe, whose people didn’t own their own land. Such dependence on outside products helped cultural connections to one another, and even instilled an ethic of food preparation and preservation.
“The pig roast itself became a way to unionize,” says Brooklyn-based chef and food historian Josh Berger. In the winter, people had to spend a lot of time outdoors, roasting pigs and gathering food to feed their families, especially when there was little access to electricity.
It’s only in the last two decades that such visits to the farm to pick, store and pick away for feast at home has increased. Today, people are more likely to look at food as a commodity, something they can buy and take away; the accompanying price inflation and increased demand has led to the modern system of wholesale and retail.
“The big picture shift has less to do with agronomy, like ‘baguettes from the mountains,’ and more to do with the connecting of urban food hubs, big data and technological retail business models,” says Mollie Katzen, associate professor of anthropology at Brown University.
Skills, knowledge and culture are now going through a massive transformation. For those who want to record, preserve, and pass down this valuable knowledge, the seeds need to be planted. This is happening by increasing the number of quality chickpea farmers, notes Berger, and by providing them with space, tools and access to learn new skills.
What it’s like to work with chickpeas
At the St. Louis event, a couple of years ago, gastronomist and former chef Erica Villegas was seeing a burgeoning movement of chefs striving to produce gluten-free and low-sodium chickpeas. That was inspired by Fergus Henderson, chef and co-founder of St. John in London, who popularized the raw chickpea. In DC, the now-closed Oxheart even served raw chickpeas cooked in wine to celebrate the end of Prohibition.
But the fact remains that, aside from such famous diners, the vast majority of people around the world consume chickpeas only in the form of bean-like street snacks. For Villegas, making sure people who enjoy this food have the tools and knowledge to preserve it is essential.
Of course, the actual process of growing and feeding “the new superstar” isn’t as simple as a blowtorch in the outhouse: “As a cook, we want to learn how to preserve, but a fresh product from a farmer or a retailer can be very complicated, because we’re moving through so many processes with our food,” says Katzen. This toolkit hopes to break down some of those barriers and provide people with the right knowledge to create unique, delicious chickpea dishes that they’ll take home with them to their families.