Hummus or Humus: Learning about Nitrogen Fixation and Legumes (Northfield, MN)

There wasn’t exactly resounding enthusiasm when it was announced that the lesson of the week would be hummus. Though none of the students had previously tasted humus, they knew with conviction that it “was absolutely disgusting”. The general sentiment in the room was not improved upon learning that we would be using kidney beans. Upon learning this, a group burst into laughter while others theatrically exclaimed “eeeeewwwww kidneys that’s really gross”.

Before we began to make the allegedly vile substance, the volunteers did a quick lesson on nitrogen fixation and its relation to legumes. Much to the chefs’ surprise, nitrogen is the primary component of air, but, even so, plants have trouble obtaining the nitrogen that they need to grow. We explained that this is because the nitrogen that surrounds us is not typically in an organic form and needs to be altered to be useful for plants.

To make nitrogen usable, some plants are in a mutualistic relationship with rhizobia bacteria. These bacteria enter the roots of legumes which leads to nodules on the roots. In return for receiving this habitat from the plant, the bacteria synthesize nitrogen into an organic form that the plant can use. Nitrogen is a key component in protein. This means that legumes, which are able to fix nitrogen easily because of their relationship with bacteria, are high in protein. Bouncing off of this we briefly discussed how energy and nutrients from plants are transferred to other organisms, including humans.

With this understanding in place, we were ready to move into the cooking portion of the day.

The students divided into four groups, each of which made a different type of humus. One group made traditional hummus with garbanzo beans, others used kidney beans, black beans and white beans. To further diversify the hummuses, groups added ingredients such as cumin and jalapeños to taste. They were al very excited about the cooking process, and all wanted a chance to use the immersion blender as well as a chance to taste the tahini (an ingredient in all the humuses).

As the hummuses were being made, the students initiated conversations about how to alter proportions of ingredients in their hummus to make it taste better. Through this, they continued to develop the understanding that cooking is a creative and flexible process.

To taste their creations, the students cut up carrots, peppers and cucumbers and toasted pita chips. Despite the widespread conviction at the beginning of the lesson that humus was gross, every one of the students swarmed to the bowls of dip and was very eager to taste it. Approval was unanimous and the pack around the hummuses did not dissipate until the last carrot stick was polished off. There was no doubt that they adored the “disgusting” hummus.

Photos by Jillian Banner ’17

Written by Rebecca Fairchild ’18

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