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Definition: lentil from Philip's Encyclopedia

Annual plant of the pea family that grows in the Mediterranean region, SW Asia and N Africa. It has feather-like leaves and is cultivated for its nutritious seeds. Height: to 51cm (20in). Family Fabaceae/Leguminosae; species Lens culinaris.

Summary Article: Lentils
from Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia

An annual legume, lentils were among the first plants that humans domesticated. Like all members of the Fabaceae or Leguminosae family, lentils bear their seeds in pods. Like beans, lentils feed the poor, possibly averting famine in years that the grain crop failed. They are high in protein and a good alternative to meat. India is the leading producer of lentils at 800,000 tons per year, a figure that is more than half the world's output. Even so, India is not self-sufficient but must import lentils from Turkey. Although its yield has fallen in recent years, Turkey produces 600,000 tons of lentils per year. Canada is the world's largest exporter, selling 280,000 tons of lentils per year. Lately, Australia has grown as an exporter. The big importers are Colombia, Spain, Belgium, and Italy. One cup of lentils contains 229 calories, molybdenum, manganese, iron, phosphorus, copper, potassium, folic acid, thiamine, protein, tryptophan, and fiber. Lentils are related to chickpea, lupin, peanut, vetch, clover, alfalfa, pea, bean, soybean, and cowpea.

Prehistory and Antiquity

Humans gathered wild lentils of the species Len orientalis before domesticating them. As early as 11,000 BCE, Greeks cooked lentils, but they may not yet have cultivated them. Between 9000 and 8000 BCE, the Syrians harvested wild lentils, though again this activity predated their cultivation. Under human aid, wild lentils gave rise to the cultivated species Lens culinaris. By one account, about 10,000 years ago women, gathering lentils in the wild in the Near East, saved the largest seeds from the most vigorous plants. They planted these seeds and then, being nomads, followed the caravan routes to various destinations. Upon returning months later, they had lentils ready to harvest. Repeating this process over many generations, humans selected for lentils that did not shatter. Unable to disperse seed, lentils now depended on human intervention for survival. The cultivated lentil also differed from its wild counterpart in having large seeds and a thin seed coat, which made lentils easier to digest. Plant stalks were sturdy, allowing lentils to grow without support. Doubtless humans prized lentils because they yielded well on marginal land. As a winter crop, lentils provided food in spring, when other sources of food were scarce.

As nomads and hunter gathers settled down in the first villages, they came to depend more on lentils and less on meat for protein. In the Fertile Crescent, the likely place of origin of lentils, humans also domesticated wheat and barley, and from an early date may have rotated lentils and grains. The ancients understood that lentils enriched the soil—though they were ignorant of the process of nitrogen fixation—and so followed lentils with a grain. Lentils had a dual use, feeding livestock in addition to humans. Livestock produced manure, further enriching the soil. Lentils and grains provided an adequate diet. They are complementary foods, each supplying amino acids that the other lacks. Lentils and other crops provided more calories per unit of land than did meat from grazing livestock. The surplus of calories fed an expanding population, fueling the growth of cities and the rise of civilization. Humble though they are, lentils helped lay the foundation of Western civilization.

The first evidence of the cultivation of lentils comes from Jarmo, Iraq, where farmers grew the legume as early as 7000 BCE. The Greeks grew lentils by 6500 BCE. Turkey and Iraq traded lentils by 5000 BCE, evidence that they must have relied on agriculture to yield a marketable surplus of lentils. By 5500 BCE, farmers throughout Europe grew lentils. Between 3000 and 1000 BCE, farmers grew lentils in the Danube River valley. By then lentils were cultivated as far north as Britain, as far south as Ethiopia, and as far east as India. Lentils were then unknown in the Americas. Egyptians grew lentils before 3000 BCE. In their religion Horus, the god of lentils, ensured a bountiful harvest. The Egyptians regarded lentils, and probably other plants as well, as a symbol of resurrection. In antiquity, Egypt reputedly grew the best lentils. Some people believe that Egypt still holds this distinction. Alexandria was the center of the lentil trade and the port through which merchants shipped lentils to Rome. As elsewhere Egyptians grew lentils, which do not need irrigation, in arid lands and on marginal soil. Egyptians put lentils in tombs to feed the dead on their journey to the afterlife. Archaeologists have found lentils in predynastic tombs and below Pharaoh Zoser's pyramid. The fact that lentils were among the food in a pharaoh's tomb suggests that the wealthy ate lentils. In Sumeria, where farmers planted lentils, chickpeas, wheat, barley, and millet, the pattern of consumption diverged from that of Egypt. As the gulf between classes widened, the rich confirmed their affluence by consuming meat. Abundant and cheap lentils fed the poor. Given this state of affairs, it is not surprising that ancient cookbooks did not devote much space to lentils. The first written recipe for lentils dates to 1600 BCE. Even then the recipe includes meat, which may have been the main dish. The lentils were to be cooked in beer.

The people of India, many of them vegetarians, cultivated lentils. So important were they that one Indian proverb held that “rice is god, but lentils are my life.” The Old Testament makes several references to lentils, the most notable being in Genesis. Brothers Jacob and Esau represented competing lifeways. Esau, the hunter, returned home hungry one day to find Jacob, the farmer, enjoying a bowl of lentil soup. Esau asked for a bowl of soup, but Jacob complied only when Esau agreed to sell him his birthright. Lentils had triumphed over meat. The prophet Ezekiel ate a type of lentil bread, though it is not clear that he enjoyed the bread. Old Testament prophets warned against the unnatural mixture of lentils and grains. This warning taught a larger lesson, reminding the Hebrews not to intermingle with other people to the point of losing their identity and faith.

The Greeks had a low opinion of lentils, regarding them as fit only for the poor. One Greek saying held that “he became a rich man and suddenly he no longer likes lentils.” Greek physician Galen believed lentils could cause elephantiasis and liver problems, produce black bile, damage eyesight, and inflame the spleen. Others believed that eating lentils with pickled meat thickened the blood. Yet Greek philosopher Zeno apparently ate lentils. To a degree the Romans shared the Greek distrust of lentils. One Roman medical authority held that lentils were hard to digest and so made one sluggish. In this context, theologian Isidore of Seville suggested in the sixth century that the word “lentil” derived from the Latin lentus, meaning “slow.” Not all Romans shared this opinion. Consumption of lentils was so great that, as we have seen, Rome had to import them from Egypt. In the second century BCE, agriculturalist Cato the Elder valued lentils as a medicine. All classes ate lentils during the Republic, and only in the Empire did patricians stigmatize them.

The Middle Ages and Modernity

In the Middle Ages, Arab physician Averroes warned that lentils caused depression, weakened vision, and vitiated sexual impulses. Taking a similar view, Arab Haliabbas worried that lentils caused depression, mania, elephantiasis, cancer, and bad dreams. Italian physician Antonius Gazius, having read the Arabs, recommended that people eat lentils only when they had no other food. The absence of lentil recipes from medieval cookbooks suggests that lentils were not an important food in the Middle Ages. It is not certain that lentils did well in cold, wet Northern Europe, leading one to wonder how familiar Europeans were with lentils.

The stigma against lentils persisted in modernity. In the 17th century, one Italian wrote, “In general lentils are only eaten by the lowest of the low.” Yet this stigma may have been waning. As early as the 16th century, French surgeon Ambroise Pare believed lentils could cure smallpox. Marie de Sevigne, a friend of King Louis XIV, ate lentil soup, recommending lentils grown in Nantes as the best. Partial to the lentils of Nantes, King Louis XV named them “the queen's lentils” for his wife, Maria Leszczyńska, a native of Poland, where lentils were prized. During the bad harvests of the 1780s, lentils spared many Frenchmen and women from starvation. With the system of food distribution in crisis during the French Revolution, people subsisted on lentils.

In the 18th century, a French priest planted lentils in the Saint Lawrence River valley, teaching the Iroquois to grow them. By 1774, farmers in Virginia cultivated lentils. Thomas Jefferson grew them at Monticello. During World War I, a missionary gave lentils to a farmer in Washington, and by the 1930s they were an important crop in that state and in Idaho. In the 1970s, farmers in western Canada grew lentils for export. Today, the people of India grow and eat more than 50 varieties of lentils. The average Indian eats some five pounds of lentils per year, whereas the average American eats less than one-quarter of a pound of lentils per year. In India, people eat lentils with oil, ginger, chili peppers, cilantro, and cumin. In southern India, people eat lentils, brown sugar, cardamom, coconut milk, and butter during the rice festival of Onam. In northern India, people eat lentils, onions, and chili peppers during the Hindi festival of Holi.

Further Reading
  • Albala, Ken. Beans: A History. Berg Oxford, 2007.
  • Hughes, Meredith Sayles. Spill the Beans and Pass the Peanuts: Legumes. Lerner Minneapolis, 1999.
  • Christopher Cumo
    Copyright 2013 by Christopher Cumo

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