Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lentils Forever.

Lentils are exceedingly virtuous things. They are nutritious. They are tasty. They are cheap. They are filling. They are versatile. They are acceptable to vegans.

One thing that lentils are not - I feel sure even their greatest fans would agree here - is exciting. Perhaps the very virtuousness of lentils obviates the possibility of their generating excitement?

Don’t get me wrong, I love lentils, but I use them to make soup, I do not share adventures with them. Is my feeling towards lentils shared? I decided to seek opinions in the literature.

First and foremost however, as is my wont, I must explore the origin of the word 'lentil.' According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name means "little lens," which sounds right, and therefore is surely correct? A couple of eighteenth and nineteenth century sources however, give quite different opinions on the etymology of the word, as well as adding to the list of the virtues of the vegetable.

From A Treatise Of All Sorts Of Foods: Both Animal And Vegetable (1745) by Louis LĂ©mery:

Of Lentils.
There are two Sorts of Lentils; the first of which are small, orbicular, thin towards the Edges, raised up in the Middle, round, hard, flatted, white, yellowish, or blackish, and two or three of them together in small Cods; these in Latin are called Lentes minores: The other are twice or thrice as big as those of the first Sort, and you must chuse both of the one and the other, such as are plump and easily boiled.
Lentils afford indifferent Nourishment, allay the Over-fervency of the Blood; are detersive and binding, when you eat them whole, but laxative when the plain Decoction of them is only used.
Lentils produce gross and tartarous Humours, cause Obstructions in the Bowels, and are look'd upon to weaken the Eye-sight.
They contain an indifferent Quantity of essential Salt, and much Oil and Earth.
Lentils agree at all times, and at any Age, with Persons of a hot and choleric Nature, and phlegrmatic Constitution; but those who are melancholy, and abound with earthy and gross Humours, ought to abstain from them.
Lentils are much us'd in Lent-time; they bind up and qualify the too great Motion of the Humours, by their gross and earthy Juice, which thickens the Liquors, and gives them a greater Consistence than before.
Lentils loosen the Body, when us'd in Decoctions, because the Water dissolves no more than the essential Salts of this Pulse, which are proper to produce this Effect, leaving their earthy Parts behind, which chiefly contribute to make the Lentils astringent, as we have observ'd already.
Lentils in Latin are called Lentes a Lenis, sweet, because they formerly believed the Use of Lentils would make the Humours sweet; or because Lentils are smooth, and soft to the Taste.

And the mid-nineteenth century English viewpoint, from Alexis Soyer's The Pantropheon, Or, History of Food, and Its Preparation (1853):

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. That people, therefore, consumed an immense quantity of this vegetable, which from infancy had been their principal food.
The Greeks also highly esteemed this aliment, and their ancient philosophers regaled themselves with lentils. Zeno would not trust to any one the cooking of them; it is true that the stoics had for their maxim: "A wise man acts always with reason, and prepares his lentils himself." We must confess that the great wit of these words escapes us, although we are willing to believe there is some in them.
However it may be, lentils were abundant in Greece and in the East; and many persons, otherwise very sensible, maintained, with the most serious countenance in the world, that they softened the temper and disposed the mind to study.
It is hardly necessary to observe that this plant was well known to the Hebrews. The red pottage of lentils for which Esau sold his birthright, the present of Shobi to David, the victory of Shammah in the field of lentils, and, lastly, the bread of Ezekiel," sufficiently prove that the Jews numbered this vegetable as one of those in ordinary use among them.
The Romans had not the same esteem for it as the nations we have mentioned. According to them, the moisture in lentils could only cause heaviness to the mind, and render men reserved, indolent, and lazy. The name of this vegetable pretty well shows, they said, the bad effect it produces. Lentil derives its origin from the word lentus (slow) "Lens a lente."
And, as if enough had not been alleged to disgrace this unfortunate plant, and to give the finish to the ill-fame it had acquired, it was placed amongst funereal and ill-omened foods. Thus Marcus Crassus, waging war against the Parthians, was convinced that his army would be defeated, because his corn was exhausted, and his men were obliged to have recourse to lentils."
How was it possible to resist such attacks! The humble plant gave way in spite of the few flattering words of the poetic Virgil, and the assurance of Pliny that this food produced two uncommon virtues— mildness and moderation."

Recipe for the Day.

As the recipe for the day, I give you an idea from an Australian newspaper in 1913 - a recipe which to my mind, comes out on the nutritious but not mouth-wateringly delicious end of the spectrum.

Vegetable Brawn
Three cups of brown lentils, 1 cup of white haricot beans, 1/4 lb of butter, 1/4 lb. of sago, salt, pepper, herbs, to taste. Wash the lentils and beans well, put them in an enamelled saucepan with plenty of water, salt, and pepper, a small piece of butter, and a good sized onion; let it boil for three our four hours, addding more water if needed. When quite soft put in fresh herbs, 1/4 lb of butter, and add slowly the sago. Boil for a few minutes, stirring all the time, then turn into a basin, put a tin plate on top, and leave in a slow oven for two or three hours. Turn out next morning.
The Mail (Adelaide) June 7, 1913

Interestingly, this exact recipe was submitted to another Australian newspaper in 1935, as an entry to a competition for recipes utilising pulses. It was subsequently published in the Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW) on 22 June of that year. What does this indicate? That to plagiarise recipes was OK in the 1930's, or at least was not policeable? Can we or should we assume that the person who submitted the recipe to the competition did know its provenance? Could she, or should she have known it (ignorance of the law being no excuse and all that)? Perhaps the recipe came to her on a tatty card handed down to her from her mother?

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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