YOU BRING THE LENTIL SOUP to the table, beaming as your dinner guests breathe in its earthy fragrance. “It’s made with the local carrots, onions, and garlic I’ve cellared this winter, and the bacon is from a Skagit Valley–raised hog,” you hear yourself saying. And then you start on the stock. You talk so much about eating local, your friends call you “the loca bore,” but you just can’t help it. You’re a proud scholar of Washington’s “foodways,” that is to say, you know everything there is to know about gathering, prepping, and eating foods that live and grow here.
But wait. You neglected to mention the main ingredient. In the 70 years since Eastern Washington’s sunny Palouse region became the first in North America to cultivate lentils commercially, it has burgeoned into one of the world’s most important growing spots, with about 70,000 acres planted in 2007 alone. So, when was the last time you saw a bag of local lentils at the farmers market?
“You can’t really identify a Washington lentil,” says Todd Scholz, director of information and research at the Washington-based USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council. Members of the pulse family of crops, lentils come from a bushy plant that sprouts pods, each of which only supplies one or two little edibles. But pulses help return nitrogen stripped out by other crops back to the soil, so farmers seed them as rotation crops and sell them to processing plants where they’re packaged with pulse crops from other states and Canada. Because only about 10 percent of Americans eat them, the majority gets shipped to legume-loving countries like India and Spain.
But not, of course, the lentils you’re serving tonight. Some of those are from the Palouse. You just can’t really say which ones.
Bob’s Red Mill uses lentils from the Palouse region in its products, available at Seattle-area groceries. Palouse lentils are also available by mail order from Meacham Mills, 208-743-0505.