Last week at the farmers’ market someone responded to the prospect of buying a package of dried lentils by saying, “I couldn’t do that. Lentils are like my Kryptonite.” A few years ago I might have agreed with him but during our year of local consumption I learnd to LOVE lentils. We started our local eating binge in January without any of summer’s harvest stored up for the winter so we were forced to turn to local offerings, which included an abundance of lentils. We put them in soups and burritos and salads and I came to really appreciate them.
I learned that they come in beautiful colors like gold/orange, green, red, and black. (In an ironic twist, it turns out Kryptonite also comes in gold, green, red, and black) I also learned that the Inland Northwest is most prolific lentil-producing region in the US. So it should be no surprise that Pullman will be hosting the National Lentil Festival this weekend.
Lentils were probably one of the primary domesticates (as were wheat and barley) on which Neolithic agriculture was founded in the Near East about 8,500 years ago. By the Bronze Age, they had been disseminated throughout the Mediterranean region, Asia, and Europe. Lentils were introduced into the United States in 1916, near Farmington, Washington. The commercial production of U.S. lentils today can probably be traced to that introduction of a single landrace.
Lentils are grown in our region as a cash crop, most of which is exported to regions of the world where people don’t see the little legumes as a mortal danger. According to the USDA:
Lentils contribute significantly to farm economics in the Palouse and the United States as a whole. The lentil crop, during the last decade, averaged over 54,400 metric tons with an approximate value of $ 31.7 million annually. About 80 percent of U.S. lentils are exported. Principal markets for Palouse-grown lentils are Spain, Peru, Ethiopia, and Venezuela.
But lentils are also used by farmers as a vital ingredient in successful production of wheat and barley which are the staples of area farmland. The lentils, like all legumes, fix nitrogen in the soil, thus requiring less application of chemical fertilizers on the cereal crop that follows it. They also help reduce the pesticides needed in subsequent crops and reduce erosion.
One secret of living in Spokane is that the local pea & lentil processors like Spokane Seed have small retail operations where you can buy peas and lentils directly from the warehouse. If you’ve experienced Kryptonite-like effects from green lentils, I recommend trying the smaller darker colored varieties.
Joseph’s Grainery, a local Colfax farmer and retailer, has an excellent website with information on how to cook with lentils. They’ve even got Youtube videos.
They also make a lentil flour which we’ve been selling at the farmers’ market this summer. It’s a gluten free alternative to wheat flours.
And if your children’s superpowers are suffering from the thought of eating lentils, the US Dry Pea & Lentil Council has a recipe for lentil chocolate cake and even some cartoon characters.