Learning to Love the Lowly Lentil

September 9, 2011
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A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between Boise State Public Radio and the Boise Weekly

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"Tasty Lentil," the Lentil Festival's mascot. Photo by Guy Hand

The Palouse–that beautifully fertile, camera-ready landscape of rolling hills, deep loess soils, ample rain and cool summer nights spreading across state lines shared between North Idaho and Eastern Washington–is nearly perfect lentil habitat. Until five years ago, it was the nation’s lentil-growing capital. Montana and North Dakota now share that title, but the Palouse region around Moscow and Pullman, Wash., still pumps out more than 100 million pounds of lentils a year.

Agricultural output, however, can’t explain why the lowly lentil recently drew an estimated 26,000 people to the National Lentil Festival in Pullman, a mere lentil’s toss from the Idaho border. The lentil-studded lentil pancakes made with lentil flour do, as do the green-felt lentil costumes, the booths full of lentil T-shirts and assorted lentil knickknacks, the kids carrying lentil placards, the otherwise stable-looking young woman who spontaneously burst out a hallelujah-like “I love lentils,” the sweetly strange lentil desserts, and the long lines of lentil devotees queued up in front of a massive pot of lentil chili like worshippers awaiting lentil-laced Communion.

“We’re giving away probably 375 gallons of lentil chili,” festival organizer Vicki Leeper shouted over the lentil-inspired din. “And it’s the biggest party on the Palouse.”

From the far end of a closed-off downtown Pullman street, I could clearly see a young man on a raised platform stirring that huge pot with a canoe paddle, Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson dispensed lentil chili from what looked like a fire hose spigot. As I approached for an interview, the mayor warned me he couldn’t control the lentil blowback as lumpy red liquid blasted into the beer pitcher he was using as a dispenser. “Don’t get too close,” he said.

Pouring lentil chili. Photo by Guy Hand

According to a hyper-accurate front page news story published in the Lewiston Tribune the next day, that chili contained 435.65 pounds of lentils, 262 gallons of water, 87 pounds of onions, 44 pounds each of celery and carrots, 43.5 gallons of tomato puree and 21.75 gallons of salsa, all of it contributing to a flavorful 7,500 servings of free lentil chili.

The second day of the Lentil Festival included a lentil cook-off, a lentil parade, educational lentil presentations, and a “Little Lentil Royalty Coronation.” But lentils themselves sprouted on the Palouse a long time before the now 23-year-old National Lentil Festival was born.

Young lentil promoters. Photo by Guy Hand

“Lentils were brought to Palouse in 1916 by a farmer named J.J. Wagner,” said Drue Wagner (no relation) at the booth he was manning at the lentil festival. “He was a Seventh-day Adventist farmer, and he was trying to promote a healthy food that he strongly believed in. He himself was a vegetarian, and he found this great food that he thought would promote good health.”

Lentils turned out to promote good health for the Palouse as well.

A legume like beans and peas, lentils are nitrogen fixers, meaning they pull nitrogen from the air, and through a symbiotic relationship with certain strains of bacteria, deposit that nitrogen in the soil and thus increase soil fertility, lowering the need for additional fertilizers.

Todd Scholz, director of research and information for the U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Council, explained this as he sat in his office, which literally straddles the Idaho/Washington border on the western edge of Moscow. The fact that he can roll his office chair across state lines is testament to the council’s concern that one state not be given preferential treatment over the other. But Scholz was talking lentil biology, not lentil politics and wanted to stress that lentils, peas and garbanzo beans also help break disease and pest cycles when planted in a rotation with wheat, the Palouse’s No. 1 cash crop. Lentils help stem erosion, too, he said, a constant issue in this steeply sloped terrain.

Stirring the lentil chili pot with a canoe paddle. Photo by Guy Hand

Despite the health and environmental benefits, Scholz said lentils are still a hard sell among U.S. eaters.

“In North America, the average consumption of lentils is like a cup per person per year,” he said. “So it’s very small.”

Although lentils are an ancient food, having turned up in Egyptian pyramids and Tibetan caves, they just aren’t a big part of the American diet. Therefore 50 percent to 80 percent of America’s lentil production is shipped overseas to more lentil-enamored countries like Spain, Italy, Greece, Peru and Columbia. To improve domestic demand, the Pea and Lentil Council works on research projects designed to create lentil products more appealing to American tastes. That includes, according to Scholz, an extruded lentil slurry that he hoped would resemble a lentil-based Cheetos-like snack.

“Lentos, maybe,” Scholz added with a grin. “But when they started that process, what came out of the extruder looked a lot like, uh … well, it wasn’t very edible anyway.”

Scholz hasn’t giving up on processed lentil treats, but he’s also encouraged to see Americans embracing the cuisines of countries that already embrace lentils, like India and the whole Mediterranean. He believes Americans will eventually learn to love the little legume, too–but until that day, he said, “we’re trying very hard to encourage people to eat lentils.”

Back at the National Lentil Festival, it wasn’t taking that much encouragement. Mayor Johnson, who now looked like the loser in a lentil-based paint ball tournament, was still dutifully manning his lentil-spewing spigot.

“You see these lines?” he asked, pointing a chili-flecked finger at the half-dozen, block-long lines of people patiently waiting for their free bowl of lentil chili. “They just keep coming and coming.”

About Guy Hand:
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.
Website:http://www.guyhand.com
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