Henry Ford's ultimate dream in life was to figure a way to grow automobiles out of the soil. In 1940 he discovered that soybeans were his bumper crop.

The beans were squashed into flakes and mixed with a solvent to extract the oil. The oil was made into car paint and the meal was cured with formaldehyde to make a plastic car frame.

Unfortunately, the soybean-mobile didn't make it past the assembly-line floor. The plastic was too expensive to process and too brittle to mold. The formaldehyde made the car smell like a mortuary and a goat ate the license plate made of soybean-derived fiber board.

But Ford's bean dream paid off. His experiments led to the use of soybeans in manufacturing soap, beer, insecticides, paint, steel and ink. There may even be an experimental crop of soybeans aboard the U.S. space shuttle by 1980.

Another milestone in soybean history was made on Capitol Hill last week. About 500 people including senators, representatives, ambassadors, diplomats and freeloaders turned up at the International Soybean Fair to see what was cooking in the bean biz.

Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland and Chai Zemin of the People's Republic of China stood shaking hands while people pushed and shoved to get to the bar and hors d'oeuvres made from every soybean product imaginable -- soy flour, bean curd, textured vegetable protein (TVP), soy milk, soy sauce.

Why are soybean trade groups such as the Food Protein Council, Protein Grain Products International and National Soybean Processors Association, spending a great deal of nonprofit dollars to promote what amounts to a hill of beans? Because that mound this year is predicted to be about 1.8 billion bushels which -- if you bought last Thursday -- at $7.41 a bushel -- would have cost $10.7 billion agrobucks.

Although soybeans are thought of by most Americans as something to feed chickens and cows, companies like Kraft, Ralston Purina, Procter & Gamble and Miles Laboratories, Inc. are hoping we will take soybeans into our kitchens. Nabisco is producing TVP extenders for fish, meat and poultry. Miles Laboratories is responsible for meat and fish analogs (products resembling conventional foods) -- break-fast strips, patties, links sold under the name Morning Star Farms. Health food shelves are stocked with soy powder, granuals, flakes and more exotic products: tempeh (an Indonesian fermented bean dish), miso (a pasty soy sauce) and tofu or bean curd.

While the prices for alternate sources of protein such as meat and fish continue to climb, soy protein products may soon begin to look more attractive, the industry claims, because they are abundant, available and cheap.

John Woods, who wrote "The Proteins-for-Pennies Cookbook," is bullish on the little legume. "It contains almost three times as much protein as roast beef... It's filled with minerals and iron. It's virtually starchfree... It contains only 130 calories per 100 grams."

But the statement that it contains more protein than beef can be misleading. "Soybean protein is not better than beef, it does not have the same amino acid profile," says an FDA spokesman.

What this means to the consumer is that he may be diluting the nutrient quality of, say, beef if soy meat extenders are added. What it means to the soy protein producers is that their product must be fortified with other grains to make a complete nutrient. In other words, the added protein or analog must equal the nutrients in the product it is replacing.

Another problem for the producers of soy protein and TVP is that soya extenders and analogs contain more sodium than the foods they replace and are therefore not suitable for persons on low-sodium diets.

A Morning Star Farms analog breakfast pattie contains 822 mg of sodium while an equivalent amount of pork sausage pattie contains 567 mg (the RDA is 500 mg). The analog however, is much lower in saturated fat. The analog products from Miles Laboratories have been fortified with B Vitamins and iron to equal the amounts in the bacon, sausage or eggs they are replacing. The fortification, however, increases the price. Morning Star breakfast links, patties and strips sell for $1.25 in area stores. Dried soybeans sell for 50 cents to $1 a pound.

The hors d'oeuvres at the Soybean Fair (10 dishes prepared by chefs from the Chinese Embassy and 13 presented by the Food Protein Council) attempted to prove that soy protein foods can be tasty and attractive. Although one critic said, they "taste like vacuum cleaner dust," some of them came close (the Morning Star Farms bacon analog had a dusty nutty taste very unlike bacon). There were a few interesting hors d'oeuves including soy nuts and garlic smothered bean curd.

To prepare the beans, wash thoroughly and pick over. Soak overnight in 2 cups of water and 2 teaspoons salt per cup of beans (figure one cup of cooked beans per person or 1 cup dried soybeans for 2 servings).Beans should be cooked in the water they were soaking in for any of these methods.

Pressure Cooker Method

Pour the soaked beans and the water used for preparing them into the pressure cooker. Cook for 45 minutes at 10 to 15 pounds pressure. The cooking time is the same for gaugeless pressure cookers.

Regular Method

Pour the soaked beans with the water into a cooking pot. Cover and simmer (do not boil) for 4 1/2 to 5 hours, or until tender. Add more water as needed.

Freezer Method

Pour the soaked beans with water into ice trays or freezing containers. The beans should be just covered with water. Freeze overnight, or as long as you like. Remove from freezer, place in a pot with sufficient water to cover. Cover and simmer (do not boil) for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until tender. Add more water if needed.

SOY NUTS

Soak 1 cup soybeans overnight in salted water. Drain and spread out to dry. Spread in shallow pan and roast in oven at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until brown.

PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES (Makes 60 cookies) 1 cup butter 2 cups sugar 1 cup peanut butter 2 eggs 3 cups soy flour

Cream butter, then mix in sugar. Blend in remaining ingredients.

Shape into long rolls (1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter). Slice; bake on greased cookie sheet in a 375-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes.

From The Proteins for Pennies Cookbook

Additional recipes Page E20

FRIED BEAN CURD WITH GARLIC AND SCALLIONS

(6 servings) 8 scallions 5 cloves of garlic, minced 5 squares of bean curd (the older and tougher the better for this dish) Oil for frying 2 teaspoons hot pepper paste or small hot green peppers 1 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar 3 tablespoons soy sauce

Cut scallions, both white part and green, into 2-inch lengths. Add minced garlic, set aside. Rinse off bean curd, then cut into slices about 1/4 inch thick, 3 inches long and 1 inch wide.

Heat work for about 15 seconds over high flame and add oil until hot. Fry the bean curd (not more than one layer deep) for 5 to 7 minutes, turning pieces over gently once or twice until golden brown and lightly speckled. Cook all the bean curd slices in this way, and set aside.

Reheat fresh oil until hot and add chopped garlic and scallions and stir fry for about 20 seconds. Add hot peppers or paste and stir fry for another 15 seconds. Return fried bean curd to the pan and stir fry for another 15 seconds. Add soy sauce and sugar and stir fry until cooked, 2 or 3 mintues.

SOYBURGERS

(Makes 16) 7 cups cooked soybeans 2 teaspoons salt 1 cup uncooked oats or 1 cup whole wheat flour 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1 tablespoon garlic powder 2 teaspoons oregano 1 teaspoon basil 1 onion, finely chopped 1 green pepper, finely chopped

Mash 5 cups of cooked and strained beans with a potato masher and while mashing add remaining ingredients. The batter should be quite stiff. To make patties, roll mix into a small ball, a little larger than a golf ball, then flatten until 1/2 inch thick. Fry in a generous amount of oil until crisp

From The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook