Barley Gettin' By
May 18, 2003
I have, I must concede, a bit of a sympathy for barley.
I've probably always known it, but it wasn't something I was conscious of until last year some time when I finally got around to reading Jared Diamond's excellent Guns, Germs and Steel Among many other topics, the book charts the relative popularity of various dietary staples around the world, and how their relative hardiness influenced the success of the people who lived in that plant's indigenous region. There are other factors, of course, like the protein value of the pulses and legumes native to an area, and the plentitude of game animals available for hunting. Also, apparently, the success of a region's people when they came into contact with other cultures was influenced by whether they had big giant murderous guns as well. Who knew?
But the thing I kept coming back to was the barley. I mean, wheat is the big man on the grain campus. You can't ignore wheat. Wheat would come up during the Cold War in news broadcasts, with reports on the Russian wheat harvest and its implications on geopolitics. And you can't have Wonder Bread without wheat. (Well, mostly you can't have Wonder Bread without water. But there is some wheat in there, I'm assured.) Rice is of course the Big Kahuna of food plants. There's only two countries in the world that have more than a billion people, and they both got there by feeding all their people rice every day, for every meal.
You don't hear a lot about barley, though. I understand there's some barley-hops-beer connection, but I don't drink beer so that doesn't mean much to me. And I know a lot of equine and bovine types favor the barley. But as a human, I think the only time I consciously eat barley is in beef barley soup. Or, the other day, I had beef mushroom barley soup. But that was unusual, not just because it included mushrooms, but because Carson Daly was sitting about 10 feet away at the time. But I digress.
So I'm trying to think of ways to share my love of barley with the world. It's a perfect complement to a nice hearty soup, a good minestrone. It's got some give to it, some texture, but it's not crunchy. As tapioca balls enliven bubble tea, so too does barley present itself as the Cracker Jack prize of soup stock. I can't help thinking that there's a nobler life for barley, though, a calling that we haven't yet found. It'll never be glamorous, I'll concede; There's no Barley-Pop™ Frozen Treat in my future.
I haven't given up rooting for the little grain, though. Reading a historical review like Guns, Germs and Steel has that air of grim inevitability to it. I knew that barley wasn't going to triumph over wheat any more than the aborignal Americans were going to defeat the conquistadores. Didn't keep me from rooting for barley, though. I still have hope.