A History of the World in Twelve Beans

On the role of beans in human history: from revolutions to modern genetics

Beans have never been sexy. Throughout history, they’ve always been seen as a poor person’s alternative to meat. And yet beans, apart from being incredibly nutritious and good for soil, have played a fundamental role in the human story. Culinary journalist Joël Broekaert brings us a playful world history, as told through twelve beans – or rather, ten plus two which we often consider beans but aren’t really: coffee and cacao.

Original title
De wereldgeschiedenis in twaalf bonen
Joël Broekaert

The domestication of beans during the neolithic revolution was essential to our shift from huntergatherers to farmers. No surprise then that lentils feature prominently in the Old Testament. Fermented soy beans powered imperial China, just as fava beans enabled a population explosion in medieval Europe. Where Mendel’s experiments with peas laid the foundation for modern genetics, coffee beans turbocharged the French Revolution.

They are also connected with oppression and popular struggle: the common bean – and its many varieties (kidney, borlotti, green, white, etc.) – first made its way around the world after Colombus’ ‘discovery’ of the Americas, and cacao beans were a major driver of the transatlantic slave trade. In the United States, black-eyed peas emerged as a proud symbol of Black identity, while chickpeas remain a point of contention for identity politics in the Middle East. Above all, perhaps, beans are our future: in these times of climate crisis, legumes such as lupin beans hold the key to juicy meatalternatives and sustainable food systems.

  • A grandiose story of humanity, as told through humble legumes

  • The story of humans and beans is one that touches every continent (except Antarctica)

  • Beans are our past, present and future

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Atlas Contact

Diana Gvozden
Sample translation available

The book reads like a novel, like a playful attempt to bring beans closer to people and their plates. Required reading material for those in need of a little help during these dark months – because that’s what all those beans do.

Dagblad van het Noorden

An ode to the bean and the ultimate rehabilitation of honor to this ancient crop. Together, the stories form a delightful and original piece of world history. Superb!

Humanistisch Verbond
Joël Broekaert
Joël Broekaert (b. 1982) is a culinary journalist, writer, and reviewer for NRC. He also produces food-inspired television programmes and podcasts. He is a jury member of the Dutch Celebrity MasterChef.
Part ofNon-Fiction
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