Soy to the world!

“Whatcha doin?” my roommate asked me as I stared at a blank computer screen, the cursor taunting me as it blinked endlessly in the upper left-hand corner.

“Writin’ a piece,” I replied, obviously lying. Writing involves typing, and a case of writer’s block made my fingers fear for the keyboard.

“On what?”

“This stuff here.” I pick up a small plastic container nearly overflowing with green bean pods, each one no longer than an inch and a half, and fighting for elbowroom in the confined space.

“Oh man is that edamame?” he asked, his voice tinted with exuberance.

“Uh, yea. How did you know?”

“Are you kidding? I love this stuff!” he declared as he attacked the tray and grabbed half a dozen pods. “Did you put salt on these yet? I love ’em with salt.”

I nodded my head and gazed in awe as he sucked down the first two beans and proceeded to march back to his room. I was still trying to process the last 10 seconds, not really sure if it actually happened. My roommate hardly ever craved a food that didn’t begin with “hot” and end with “dog.” But there he was, eyes and mouth both wide open in dire anticipation of the next tasteless green vegetable being guided toward his tongue.

Since the beginning of the fall 2001 semester, these little green soybeans have crept into the diets of the diverse GW student body. From the macho baseball player, to the experimental freshman, it’s difficult to find a single student who has not tried edamame (pronounced ed-ah-MAH-may) at least once in the last couple months. Just meander through the crowded aisles of a typical suppertime at J Street and students are bound to notice piles of empty pods discarded like candy wrappers at the center of several tables.

“I’d never even heard of edamame before coming here,” freshman Jess Zdenek said. “Now I eat them all the time. They’re really good.”

Why they are good depends on whom you ask. The most popular way to eat them is with salt to disguise the bland flavor. Most said they enjoy the vegetable as a snack as they socialize with friends and classmates. Some even call the food “fun” to eat.

While edamame is new to this D.C. campus, it’s certainly not new to the world. According to Dr. Tommy Carter, a research geneticist at North Carolina State University, historical records of edamame consumption date back to East Asian culture in the 1500s. Today, the soybean is the Japanese version of the bar nut or pretzel. Order a beer at a Tokyo bar, and the bartender will also slide over a heaping bowl of salted edamame.

In recent years, though, the American demand for edamame has risen dramatically. According to an article in USA Today, the Sunrich company of Hope, Minn., the leading producer of soybeans in America, sells more than 2 million pounds of edamame per year, and has seen an annual 25 percent increase in demand.

Health factors, says James H. Orf, professor of agronomy at the University of Minnesota and expert edamame breeder, are a major reason why Americans are indulging in the soybean craze.

“Edamame is catching on in America because more people are concerned about their health,” Orf said. “And the data show that soybean is a major reason why the Japanese people are more healthy and have fewer health problems and live longer.”

Orf said the soybean offers a nutritional balance of protein and levels of essential acids, antioxidants and several compounds that help lower cholesterol. He noted that the beans may reduce the risk of cancer, prevent osteoporosis and help ease the symptoms of menopause.

Back on GW’s campus, a box of edamame goes for $4.95 and some students contend that while the initial wave of edamame’s emergence was likely health-driven, the tsunami of its recent popularity is motivated more by personal image.

“Its like sushi,” sophomore edamame fan Sarah Landman said. “People think they’re cultured by eating an international food. Japanese food has become so trendy lately. Japanese people are beautiful and healthy and people want to emulate them.”

Some students are fascinated by the name.

“The exoticness of its name makes (students) believe that they are cultured,” senior Michael Drootin said. “But in fact they are the complete opposite, not cultured.”

Everybody buys edamame, said Howard Everett, the cashier at the sushi bar in J Street.

“They sell so well,” Everett said. “I’ve tried it, it taste good. I find women buy it more than men, but I don’t have the slightest idea why.”

Regardless of their motivations, edamame enthusiasts insist they are hopelessly addicted to the snack. Fortunately, they say, it’s perhaps the healthiest of addictions.

“Even if I’m not hungry I keep eating and eating it when it’s there,” senior Garrette Silverman said. “They aren’t filling and they’re fun to eat when you’re bored in class.”

It was Silverman who introduced me to edamame sitting next to me in class next semester. She pulled out the container of beans and happily began munching on them.

“What are those?” I asked, not believing someone would actually snack on raw bean pods.

“They’re edamame,” she answered with her California valley girl enthusiasm. “They’re like so super awesome. Try one.”

Hesitantly, I reached into the pile and picked the smallest one I could find. I slowly raised it to my mouth and wrapped my lips around the pod. I couldn’t help but notice its tiny hairs tickling my lips, almost as if I was kissing an elderly aunt on the cheek (“They’re called pubescence, explains Dr. Carter. “They protect the plant from insects.”).

Then I sucked out the little beans. I tongued them around in my mouth, and started chewing. The texture was mushy, like peas (my least favorite vegetable) and there was hardly any flavor to them whatsoever. I swallowed in mild agony and concluded it was the worst food I ever had.

I turned to Silverman, my face still reeling from my virgin effort, ready to express my contempt for all vegetables, beans or otherwise.

“That was terrible!” I scolded Silverman.

And then that cheesy slogan from that cheesy potato commercial started running through my head.

Junior Michelle Abbani agrees that when it comes to edamame, you can’t eat just one.

“My mom always told me not to play with my foods,” she said. “But eating edamame is just so addicting. I can never have just one.”

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