Thursday, May 22, 2008

Digestive Difficulties.

May 22 ...

The painter Vincent van Gough kept up a long correspondence with his brother Theo, who supported him financially. As we well know, Vincent ‘went mad’, cut off his ear, and ended up in an asylum at Saint-Rémy. He wrote to his brother from there on this day in 1889.

“The food all right as far as it goes. It tastes a bit musty, of course, as in a cockroach-infested restaurant in Paris, or in a boarding-house. The poor wretches here, having absolutely nothing to do (not a book, nothing more to distract them than a game of boules or a game of draughts), have no other daily distraction than to stuff themselves with chickpeas, haricot beans, lentils and other groceries and colonial produce, in set quantities and at stated hours. As the digestion of these foodstuffs offers certain difficulties, they fill their days in a way as offensive as it is cheap”.

In other words, beans are fart food – perfect for a little offensive fun in the asylum or elsewhere. I don’t know of any scientific studies to back this up, but there is a widespread belief that lentils are the least likely of the dried pulses to offend in this way. Sometimes our received wisdom is not very wise after all, so I would not be surprised to find that this is not at all true.

Much is written about the lentil, but almost none of it tells a story, which is a waste of writing in my opinion. Unless the story is about uncertainty of purpose. There is no consensus on what the poor lentil is supposed to do with its life.

Is is merely Lenten food?

Lentils are much used in Lent time: they bind up and qualify the too great Motion of the Humors, by their gross and earthy Juice, which thickens the Liquors, and gives them a greater Consistence than before.
[A Treatise on all sorts of Foods: Both animal and vegetable … Louis Lémery, 1745]

Is it a medicine?
The Pharmacopoeia Universalis: Or, A New Universal English Dispensatory,(1747) suggests a decoction of red beets with lentils to check a Diarrhoea.

Is it fit only for animals?
The Complete Steward, or, the Duty of a Steward to His Lord (1761)
Suggests lentils as excellent sweet fodder for calves, and the best food for pigeons.

Or is it brain food?

“The Egyptians, whose ideas were sometimes most eccentric, imagined it was sufficient to feed children with lentils to enlighten their minds, open their hearts, and render them cheerful.”
[Alexis Soyer’s The Pantropheon, or, History of Food and its Preparation … 1853]

Luckily for us, some do consider the lentil a tasty food. From The Cook's Dictionary and House-keeper's Directory … , by Richard Dolby (1830):

Lentils, fricaseed.
Make a light roux, in which put some sweet herbs, or onions cut in dice; give them a few turns in the roux; to which add a little stock, or water; when well mixed, put in the lentils with salt and pepper. Serve them hot.

Lentils à la maître d’hôtel.
Boil some lentils in salt and water; then drain them, and put them in a saucepan, with a large piece of butter; shred parsley, some salt, and pepper; toss them in a stewpan, and serve them hot. Garnish with crusts of bread round.

Another story inspired by one of Vincent’s letters is HERE.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Zodiac food.

Quotation for the Day …

"I hate with a bitter hatred the names of lentils, haricots -- those pretentious cheats of the appetite, those tabulated humbugs, those certified aridites calling themselves human food!" George Robert Gissing, English novelist (1857-1903)

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