Last night, I headed over to Berkeley for a talk featuring a group of organic lentil farmers from Montana, the former country music singer who wrote a book about them, and Michael Pollan. At the reception afterwards, we all drank wine and talked food politics and sampled small bites made with the heirloom lentils and grains grown by the farmers.
So in many ways, it was a typical Thursday in the Bay Area food scene.
Except that instead of passionate young farmers determined to shape the new agrarian revolution, the main characters of this story were passionate older farmers whose revolution began thirty-plus years ago, when they rejected industrial monoculture to grow organic lentils on their family farms.
This was before organic was commonplace, before lentils were trendy, when the farming communities and the banks that financed them had no reason to believe that they would succeed. Their story is one of years of struggle and determination and community — community most of all — that has made their “lentil underground” into the success that it is today.
Side note: Remember when Adam Roberts, the Amateur Gourmet himself, made those black chickpeas? Guess who grew them? That’s right: these guys.
Why grow lentils? Two of the big reasons: fertilizer and water. Growing crops industrial-style takes a lot of fertilizer, while leaving the soil in worse shape after each season. And fertilizer is expensive, especially when commodity prices are low. Lentils make their own fertilizer by pulling nitrogen from the air, meeting their own needs and leaving excess nutrients in the soil for the next season’s crop.
Second, lentils can cope with a wide range of weather conditions, and are very drought-tolerant. This was important back then, and is even more important now, when we’re seeing more extreme weather and long-term droughts.
More importantly to you non-farmers out there: why eat lentils? Well, because lentils are delicious. Seriously, you have no idea how good they are when you make them right. And they’re healthy. And cheap. And full of protein and fiber. (To make it a complete protein, just eat some sort of grain or nut at some point on the same day.)
And yes, they’re gluten-free.
They’re also one of the most environmentally friendly protein sources out there. It turns out this is true even if you’re buying organic lentils imported from Montana — transport costs are only about 4% of the carbon footprint.
And they’re quick and easy to make — unlike beans, lentils cook in 25-45 minutes, no soaking required. There are a number of different varieties of lentil, each with its own texture and flavor. They’re versatile: like chicken, they can adapt to just about any cuisine or flavor. And seriously, they’re easier to make than boxed mac ’n’ cheese.
You can buy Timeless Food’s heirloom lentils, chickpeas, and grains at timelessfood.com
Claudia Krevat prepared the food for the event: find her recipes, spice mixes, and event information at claudiasmesa.com