July 17, 2016
What we eat reflects an ethic: a sense of what is right and proper. If beans are not for breakfast—a theme we explored last week—that’s because we (whoever “we” we happen to be at the moment) have adopted some culturally based presumptions about what to eat and when. For a lot of middle-class Americans, breakfast is a time for bowls of hot or cold cereal, a bagel or pastry, or possibly a hot breakfast with eggs at the center somewhere. The particular hold that this norm has on Americans is fading rapidly. There are plenty of under 40s who think nothing of chugging down some cola first thing in the morning, and that’s something that would have been unthinkable to the point of sacrilege for any of my immediate ancestors.
With only a little bit of prodding I could come up with a respectable philosophical defense of my grandparents’ culturally based disapproval of soft drinks. Empty calories dosed with caffeine give a quick buzz but drop you flat by mid-morning. And then there’s the long term connections with obesity and neurological triggers for sweet tastes. Beans would be another matter. Nothing wrong here, even if they are an incomplete protein in and of themselves. In combination with a little wheat or rice, they make a nutritionally sound choice for starting the day. But I grew up with the firm understanding that beans are not a breakfast food.
So when Johnny Cash sings, “Beans for breakfast once again. Hard to eat ‘em from the can. Wish you’d come back and wash the dishes. I’m a hungry nasty lonesome man,” he’s evoking a ton of cultural stereotypes. Not that he’s expressing approval, mind you. Like a lot of country music, Cash’s poetry trades heavily on the archetype of the “no good man”, insensitive to love and abusive to the woman who offers it. In this case, the love that is casually discarded (later to be rued over) takes the form of that prototypical hot breakfast we were talking about earlier. It’s hard to picture Cash’s love interest in this song pouring Frosted Flakes™ into a bowl and then slamming a carton of milk down in front the sulking, drugged-out hungover he-male that is narrating this particular slice of mid-70s American life.
At the risk of boring everyone, it’s probably worth it to linger awhile over just a few of the gender issues raised by Beans for Breakfast. If we are not supposed to be eating beans for breakfast, if we are, as Cash’s narrator is, brought momentarily (and even then only partially) to an awareness of the despicable state to which we have fallen by this indignity, then just as surely the absent referent (e.g. the women, who in previous verse we have learned has boarded a flight to somewhere else) is supposed to be frying up some eggs, brewing up some coffee and placing them subserviently in front of the man that she is, to quote yet another country classic of the era, “standing by.” You have to infer all of this for the song to work for you.
Maybe this is why Cash is not appreciated by a new generation listening to Kellie Pickler or Carrie Underwood through headphones as they drink Pepsi™ or Red Bull™ on their way to work in the morning. Maybe that’s progress, but can you forgive me for not being too sure about that? It’s not that I want to put women back behind the frying pan, nor is it any lingering prejudice against beans, for that matter. I’m as down with a bean and cheese taco for breakfast as the next gringo. It would probably be safest for me to advert to that nutritional line we tendered briefly above. But the actual fact is that I’m having trouble seeing any cultural resonance in swigging soft drinks for your wake-up meal, and that strikes me as a loss.
Maybe the problem wasn’t the beans, after all. Maybe it was the can.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University