This Humble Food Is a Nutritional Powerhouse -- and It Changed the Lives of Hippies, Environmentalists, and Gun-Toting Rednecks
Lentils are a humble ingredient that appear in many earthy foods. Not the fancy dishes that tapdance around the table, but simple, nourishing foods like Indian dal or hippy mush, the kind of food that feeds villages. It turns out that lentils come from a plant that has a similarly beneficial impact on the land where it grows, and on the communities that cultivate it.
During the height of the 1980 farm crisis, four Montana farmers joined forces in a hunt for alternatives to the commodity agriculture system that was destroying their land and communities. The soil was losing its fertility, thanks to the predominant industrial agriculture practices in the region. Droughts were becoming more frequent, which exacerbated the soil issues. Farmers were going broke, crushed between rising prices for inputs and lower prices at market.
The four friends were determined to farm their way out of this mess, and began by exploring various crops that would add fertility to the soil. One, a lentil named Indianhead, was bred as a cover crop, intended to be ploughed into the soil to add nitrogen. But when plants make nitrogen, reasoned David Oien, one of the four founders of the Lentil Underground movement, what they’re really making is nitrogen-rich protein.
“Indianheads were cheap,” Liz Carlisle writes in Lentil Underground, a book about Oien and his movement. “They were great for his soil. And since they were bred to make nitrogen, they were 24 percent protein. Why not add them to the cattle ration? Or for that matter, why not try some himself?”
The Indianheads were delicious, and Oien began eating copious amounts, though it was a while before he admitted to his neighbors that he was eating his soil-building crop.
Oien and his friends founded a company, Timeless, to market what they grew. The name came from a meeting that went way into the night, and nobody knew what time it was.
Twenty-five years in, the Lentil Underground includes a widening base of organic farmers who grow for Timeless, including old hippies, young environmentalists, gun-loving rednecks, conservative Christians, Libertarians, the state’s organic certification inspector, and Montana’s Democratic senator, Jon Tester. The personalities and against-all-odds tension of the book makes for a fun read that’s as much about ecology and economics as it is lentil farming.
In addition to being an agricultural and social movement, Lentil Underground is also a political movement. Carlisle first learned of the Lentil Underground while working for Sen. Tester. Members of the Lentil Underground weren’t shy about calling their senator with ideas, especially since their senator was a lentil grower.
Thanks in part to their efforts, the recent Farm Bill contains a pilot program called the Pulse School Pilot provision—Pulse being the plant family of which lentils are members. The Pulse School Pilot provision funds the purchase of $10 million in lentils and other pulse legumes.
Lentils are such a nutritional powerhouse that USDA classifies them as both a plant and a protein. And those high-protein Indianheads? They are still being grown, marketed as Black Beluga Lentils, and are popular with high-end chefs. Many other varieties of lentils, in a rainbow of colors, also bear the Timeless label, as well as a Black Kabuli Chickpea, which functions ecologically like a lentil (and makes a striking hummus, Carlisle says).
These legumes are grown in rotation with grain and oilseed crops, and sometimes a pasture phase. The oilseed phase could be flax or sunflower or safflower. The grain phase could be one of several heritage grains like farro or Purple Prairie barley, marketed by Timeless. Other heritage grains, like kamut and spelt, are bought by the friendly competition, Montana Flour and Grains.
Legumes are able to build their legendary proteins, and thus supply the plant with in-house fertilizer, thanks to a symbiotic relationship between the plant’s roots and a type of soil bacteria. This trans-species cooperative effort that goes on below the lentil plants is a metaphor for the entire Lentil Underground movement. And the more I learn about it, the more I feel the urge to eat some lentils.
There are no recipes in the book, but a companion book is in the works: Pulse of the Earth, by Claudia Krevat.
Carlisle gave her default Ethiopian-style lentil recipe to me. It’s a recipe she never tires of. I’ve cooked it twice, and I’m hooked. It uses red lentils and Ethiopian berbere spice mix, and results in a dish called messer wot, aka spicy lentils.
- I cup red or yellow lentils
- 1 medium or larger onion, minced
- 2 cloves fresh garlic
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 2 tablespoons berbere mix
- ¼ cup olive oil
A key step to this recipe, Carlisle said, is to “let the onions, water and berbere enjoy each others’ company for a few minutes.”
Add a minced onion to a pan with enough water to cover it. Add your spice of choice. While Carlisle's spice of choice is usually berbere, sometimes she uses Indian dal spices, sometimes curry powder, sometimes plain cumin.
Simmer the onion, spice and water for 30 minutes. Then add olive oil, garlic and salt. Wait another five minutes, then add lentils and more water or stock as the lentils start to swell.
I was surprised that she added the lentils dry, without soaking or cooking them first. Most red and yellow lentils are decorticated, she explained, which means the outer skin has been removed. The Timeless Petite Crimsons she uses cook in 5-10 minutes.
Keep adding water or stock as the lentils swell, and cook until they are done to your desired tenderness.
At this point, I prefer to let the lentils and broth cool to where I can puree them in the blender, where it becomes a creamy, dreamy, silky and spicy soup, which I can then reheat, adding water as necessary to thin it. My wife prefers her messer wot unblended, because she likes the texture of the lentils. And that’s OK. There is strength in diversity in the Lentil Underground. As long as we don’t run out of berbere spice mix, everything will be cool.