"Then Jacob gave Esau bread
"Wilful elaboration is a sign that the stylist has entered a decadent phase. You cannot live on caviar and foie gras every day: sometimes a plain dish of lentils is all that the palate craves, even if one insists that the lentils come from Puy."
--Logan Conzago Mountstuart, in William Boyd's Any Human Heart, talking about Vladimir Nabokov's Ada.
"Lentils divorced me
Handaquoq took me back;
By the life of your head, O Handaquoq
I'll never taste lentils again.
--old Arab verse
MAID : O welcome, Heracles! come in, sweetheart.
My Lidy, when they told her, set to work,
Baked mighty loaves, boiled two or three tureens
Of lentil soup, roasted a prime ox whole,
Made rolls and honey-cakes. So come along.
--Aristophanes, The Frogs
"Now he doesn't eat lentils anymore"
--Aristophanes, Ploutos. This ended up becoming a popular proverb, meaning a person who denied a poor background after rising to wealth.
This little baby goes all the way back to 8000 to 7000 BCE, in southwestern Asia on the fertile lands that now border the Indus River. From there it spread all over the Mideast and to northeast Africa, then to India and to Eastern Europe.
In Genesis 25: 30-34, of course, Esau--famished after a day of hunting--sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a mess of potage, meaning red lentils--and in many cuisines the culinary term Esau has come to mean lentil.
"And Esau said to Jacob,
feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint...
And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright.
And Esau Said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?
And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.
Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles...."
The bean itself is the seed of a small shrub, shaped like a lens (get it? Latin, lens, lentis). 17th-century scientists accordingly named their convex glass invention a lens.
Egyptians ate it; Greeks too; also Romans. Aristophanes, reflecting on its reputation for feeding the poor, has a snobby character say of a nouveau riche friend, "Now he doesn't eat lentils anymore." Much later, Robespierre played a different riff on the same instrument--no gourmet himself, this humorless man of principle wanted the French to eat a dish of lentils with love of the Patrie as its only seasoning.
Lentils come in different forms: brown (the famous French lentille blondes); brown masoor lentils, which are red and tender; green, or Egyptian, lentils; red lentils, which are orange-pink in color; and masoor dal--just the brown masoor bean with the seed coat removed.
For more family gossip, see beans. For the last word in lentils, consider the following poem "Song to the Lentil" by Roy Blount, Jr.:
If we are good basic people, then one can assume in us
An affinity for the leguminous.
And there is no more fundamental
Legume than the lentil.
Lens derives from lentil--due
To the flat/round shape. It is true
The lentil's opaque, but then who
Wants soup that he can look down through?
Lentil soup's as clear as fens,
But just as the ocular is eased by the lens,
So by the lentil
Is the gastric and dental.
That image may be inexact. However, what's meant'll
Glow through the lentil--
The hearty but gentle,