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The lesson for today comes from the twenty-fifth chapter of Genesis, lines 29–34:

And Jacob sod* pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint:

And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom.

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; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.

So lentil soup is one of the oldest recorded dishes. Herodotus mentions lentils as a crop from the exotic north (4.17.1). Modern cultures from Argentina to India eat these little seeds in enormous quantity, more than a million tons a year. They come in many colors: brown, yellow, orange. And at some point they gave their Latin name, lens, to the lens we see through, whether in the eye or in front of it. This is not merely an etymological curiosity but a living fact in modern life. The same word refers to the pulse and the optical disk in French (lentille), Italian (lènte), Spanish (lenteja), and German (Linse).

Depending on how one first came upon this word in France, say, it comes as a jolt to discover that lentilles de contacte are contact lenses and not some invention of a chef. Or, conversely, in Germany, that Linse are something you put in your mouth and not in your eyes.

I love to slice up an onion and add it to a package of lentils that have been soaking in water along with salt and a kielbasa cut in rounds. This is indeed what Mother used to call a meal in itself.

I also like nothing better than that French farmhouse standby cou d’oie farci aux lentilles (stuffed goose neck with lentils). I would prepare it regularly if I had easy access to goose necks.

For us, for our family, and for Americans in general, lentils are not a central element of the daily diet, even though they are 25 percent protein and laughably cheap. Indians, on the other hand, consume them at most meals, as a side dish called dal. Dal is, for lack of a better word, a porridge made from dried lentils, beans, peas, or chickpeas. Some dais are soupy, while at the other extreme are dais in which the lentils or beans retain their shape. Masoor dal is a split lentil with a pink or salmon color. In the recipe below, you will not bring down the wrath of Shiva on your head if you substitute yellow or brown lentils.

*Archaic past tense of seethe, to soak or boil


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