Friday, February 1, 2008

Lentil Liberation

I've always associated lentils with big times--I expect because my mom made lentil soup as the midnight meal at the epic New Year's Eve parties of my childhood. Staying up late, watching a generally dignified set of adults get loose, lentil soup with ham. It all fit.

Later I fell in love with Indian food and its multicolored array of intriguingly named dals--moong, masur, urad, toor--lentils all. Like tofu, or potatoes, lentils are a flavor sponge, soaking up the salt and smoke of ham hocks or the warmth of cumin and chili.

What I didn't know until years later was that millions of those cooks in India were working their magic with legumes grown in Washington state. The Palouse hills of eastern Washington (and, ok, Idaho too) produce nearly all of the lentils grown in the U.S., the great majority of them for export. Meanwhile, specialty dals are imported from India to the U.S. for the Indian-American market, subject to the vicissitudes of world trade. (For example, the Indian government banned lentil exports in 2006 when drought drove up domestic prices.) It's not clear to me why this makes sense. Couldn't North American lentil lovers get their fix from the U.S. and Canadian growers who are actually looking for markets?

As a major crop in the fertile but fragile soils of the Palouse, lentils are a better environmental choice than most. Being legumes, they fix nitrogen in the soil and are often used to build soil quality in rotation with the more nutrient-demanding grain crops. They can be sown directly into stubble from the preceding crop, reducing the erosion from tilling. They are generally grown without irrigation, so they don't further imperil the aquifer to the extent of, say, potatoes. They are also currently endangered by the rising prices for wheat, corn, and soy, which are pushing growers into altering their rotations and sowing where the money is. If we lose lentil acreage to grow grain for ethanol in the name of energy independence, is that really progress?

So as local eaters, surely our mission is clear: Keep our lentils home! Buy a batch today! Post your favorite recipes in the comment section here!

And come August, never mind that tour of Normandy to try du puy lentil salad with duck breast. Head to Pullman for the annual Lentil Festival. Lentil Burgers on the grill, a big parade, bicycle races, and--for my money--some of the most beautiful agricultural landscapes on the planet.

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