Whether it is my age or my natural inclination to avoid joining the masses indulging in the next fad, I came to quinoa late. My first hesitation was with the pronunciation. To this day I look at the word and my mind recites “kwin-oh-uh” before I can stop it and mentally recite it correctly. Nothing about the name’s physical makeup leads a person to say “keen-wah.” Maybe I should rephrase that and say nothing about it leads a genteel southern gentleman to pronounce it “keen-wah.” For close to two years my official name for it was “kwin-oh… uh…kwoon… whatever.” And most people knew exactly what I was talking about.
I have no idea why it became popular in the United States. It’s not like it is a freshly discovered food source. The Inca’s were harvesting it 3000 years ago in the Andes (and no doubt arguing on how to pronounce it), and they treated it as a sacred food, referring to it as “the mother of all grains.” As Americans, we generally ignore history unless we made it so its sacredness is invalid. My less than educated guess is, because quinoa is high in protein, some foodie chef got motivated to try it and, before anyone could make up their own minds on its merit, a large swath of people became convinced by a celebrity cook that it was viable and worth the effort to eat. Then, all across Brooklyn and San Francisco, waiters and waitresses tried to remain straight faced when asked by a patron, “Is the quinoa all-you-can-eat?”
Regardless its nutritional value, quinoa is oddly devoid of a distinct taste. Much like tofu, the quinoa seeds tend to take on the flavor of the dish or sauce with which it is served. It is labeled a pseudocereal and is closely related to spinach and tumbleweeds, sadly tasting more like the later. And that is why it is rarely served alone and almost always is the base layer of salad, meat or vegetables. Yes, if pressed for an answer in front of a paid television audience, I could work up some adjectives to describe it—earthy, pebbly, bug-like, hard to remove from the crevices of your teeth even with a toothbrush— but I fear those descriptions will not pass the quinoa public relations test. But quinoa does not need me to tout its virtues because the United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 as the “International Year of Quinoa.” The world is on notice.
It has not been a smooth ride to the top of the food chain for quinoa; it has had to deal with its share of controversy. That makes sense because it is 2015 and everything has to be controversial. Because it is considered a grain, both the Jewish and paleo diet communities have hedged their bets and refused to endorse it as either kosher or caveman friendly. Plus, the people that think green beans are a waste of time are not going to jump on any new food bandwagon, regardless—or maybe because of—what the United Nations declares. Despite all this, if not outright negativity then minimally neutral attributes, quinoa has garnered the label of a “Super Food” and is frequently tied to kale. Quinoa and kale. The auditory alliteration aside, they do compliment each other, although kale is another acquired taste (unless you are already a fan of bitter, tough lettuce). And good for them. They both needed a friend.
Maybe there is a human, relational lesson for us to learn from this recent rise of these two old (but new to us) additions to our diet. Think of yourself as quinoa (or kale since it is easier to pronounce). By yourself you may be earthy, bitter or tough to deal with one-on-one. And you are fine with that. After all, no one can know all the history and DNA that have crashed together over hundreds of years to make you who you are. Heck, you don’t even understand it; you can only attempt to accept it. But, if you are lucky, another less than palatable person crosses your path and something clicks. There is a connection and, despite the odds, the two of you, together, become, if not attractive and pleasant, at least okay. You enjoy being with each other even if the rest of the world can’t quite figure out why. If you find that person, your quinoa to your kale, I encourage you to hang onto them fiercely. Accept them, learn to love them and gradually form your own “super food” of friendship. And, pushing the food analogy to an awkward extreme, if you, as a quinoa or kale, are fortunate enough to ever meet a bacon—that rare food that makes everything around them better—never let them go because bacon can make even brussel sprouts taste good. We should all aspire to be bacon; we don’t have to accept being bitter and buggy. Because if there is one thing all us quinoas and kales can agree to, it is the world needs more bacon.