Dry peas, lentils, beans, and chickpeas—known as pulses—are among the world’s most ancient commodities. Archeologists have discovered peas in caves in what is present day Thailand that date back more than 11,000 years. The royal Egyptian tombs contained lentils, which were meant to sustain the dead on their journey to the afterlife. In the Christian Bible, Esau sold his birthright for a pottage of lentils. And, in Italy, the names for peas (Pisum sp.), lentils (Lens culinaris), and chickpeas (Cicer arietinum) found their way into the names of the prominent Roman families of Piso, Lentulus, and Cicero.
According to Italian writer and academic Umberto Eco, it may even be true that peas, beans, and lentils actually saved Western Civilization during the Early Middle Ages (476 to 1000 AD). It is well documented that the introduction of pulses into crop rotation practices resulted not only in increased farm productivity, but also in improved protein content and a more diverse and nutritional diet for the populace. The development is credited with saving generations of people from malnutrition and helping facilitate the repopulation of Europe after the Black Plague pandemic of the late 1340s.
Perhaps in recognition of pulse’s extraordinary qualities, many cultures have developed a range of traditions in which the eating of peas and lentils figure prominently. Among the most notable is No Ruz, the New Year’s celebration in Iran. During this 13-day celebration, every house maintains a table known as the “seven S’s,” which includes seven symbolic objects beginning with the letter S. Germinating lentil seeds, known as sabzi, hold the place of honor in the center of the table to symbolize renewal and rebirth.
For hundreds of years, the people of northern Italy have enjoyed their own New Year’s tradition called Capo d’Anno (literally “head of the year”) in which lentils, symbolizing coins, are eaten to ensure good fortune for the year ahead. Consuming these “coins” is thought to make wealth and prosperity part of one’s blood and being. Eating lentils, rather than more exotic or expensive foods, is also considered an act of humility to both heaven and society, and a means for averting the sin of pride.
Over time, the United States has seen much of its own rich tradition of eating pulses replaced by a preference for fast food and microwavable meals. Fortunately, Americans are starting to rediscover these overlooked ingredients. Nutritionists have, for example, begun pointing to the pulse rich diets of the Mediterranean as one possible route to improved health.
The media, meanwhile, is increasingly touting the benefits of the nutritional attributes and phytochemicals found in pulses. Recent research shows that the antioxidants, flavonoids, plant estrogens, vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber in pulses can help prevent, and may even contribute to, the reversal of many major chronic diseases.
Add these health benefits to their delicious flavor and incredible culinary versatility and it is little wonder that Americans are once again finding a place for peas, lentils, and chickpeas in their diets and on their dining room tables. See Appendix C for a collection of sample formulations.
Dry Peas, Lentils, and Chickpeas in the United States
The first U.S. lentils were grown in 1916 in eastern Washington in a region known as the Palouse. These lentils were not native to the area and were brought by a Russlanddeutscher Seventh Day Adventist minister named Schultz (his first name has been lost to history).
Reverend Schultz’s seeds eventually reached J.J. Wagner, a farmer in the aptly named Washington town of Farmington. Wagner planted a single acre of lentils in 1916. Finding that they grew well in the rich, volcanic soils of the region, he began producing the legume for the vegetarian Seventh Day Adventist communities.
In time, his market grew to include Seventh Day Adventist academies and colleges across the U.S. Looking to protect what he had built, Wagner refused to sell any lentil seed to the local seed company. He did, however, apparently agree to sell seed to a fellow farmer who eventually opened the market by selling the seed himself.
By 1937, the first commercial acreage of lentils had been contracted, growing to include some 3,000 acres by 1948. Today, U.S. farmers harvest more than 250,000 acres of lentils. Most of these farms, many of which now also grow other pulses, reside in a regional belt north of 45°N latitude that runs from North Dakota, through Montana and Idaho, and into Oregon and eastern Washington.
Successful production of dry peas, lentils, and chickpeas requires a unique combination of soil, moisture, and climate. This makes them especially well suited to this region, as they tolerate its characteristic cool spring weather and do not need artificial irrigation, relying only on rainfall during the growing season.
Pulses are planted annually in rotation with other crops, generally cereal grains such as wheat and barley, and are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into usable nitrogen for plant growth, reducing the need for additional fertilization of following crops.
Split peas and lentils from the U.S. are dried naturally in the sun and harvested at a low moisture rate. Because of their small size, it is not necessary to soak them. Soaking them may result in overcooking. In contrast, whole peas and chickpeas require soaking before cooking.
Today, U.S. pulses are the world’s gold standard for quality. Perfect climate and soil conditions, combined with many generations of harvesting and processing expertise, help to consistently produce the highest quality and most functional pulses grown anywhere.
World Market for Dry Peas, Lentils, and Chickpeas
Only about 30 percent of the pulse crops grown in the U.S. is actually consumed in domestic food and feed markets. The rest is exported to consumers around the globe, generally from U.S. ports in the Gulf of Mexico or in the Pacific Northwest and from Canadian ports in Vancouver or Montreal.
The harvested pulses are stored in elevators throughout the growing region in which fans circulate air to keep the peas, lentils, and chickpeas dry and free of mold. An important step in processing pulses is to pass the product over screens to sort out dirt and pebbles and to separate pulses by size, in accordance with buyers’ specifications. In some operations, electronic color sorters are used to ensure that pulses are uniform in color. Next, pulses are thoroughly cleaned to ensure that foreign matter and chips are removed, and then the product is bagged.
Once bagged, peas, lentils, and chickpeas are ready for shipment. The bags are loaded into shipping containers, each of which holds about 20 metric tons. These containers then find their way onto trucks, train cars, barges, and oceangoing cargo ships for transport to markets throughout the U.S. and around the world.
Variety Classifications and Standards
Grading standards have been established by the United States Department of Agriculture Federal Grain Inspection Service (USDA FGIS). The goal is to ensure that buyers receive a clean, wholesome product that conforms exactly to the grade ordered. The grading standards allow accurate communication among all parties in a trading transaction, regardless of language, political, or cultural barriers.
Peas are thought to have originated in northwest Asia and have been discovered in Egypt dating from c. 4800–4400 BC. They were an important part of the diet of most people in Europe during the Middle Ages, and by the 1600s–1700s they had become popular in their “green” or immature form. They eventually spread to North America, where Thomas Jefferson grew more than 30 cultivars of peas on his estate.
Dry peas dry naturally in the late summer sun and are most commonly split to speed cooking time. During processing, they are sorted and then bombarded against a baffler, which causes them to break in two halves. Americans are most familiar with green peas, but yellow peas are also grown in the U.S. Northern Plains of Montana and North Dakota. They are most commonly consumed in India and taste slightly different than green peas.
Lentils may have been among the first agricultural crops ever grown. Production is thought to have begun in the Near East and then spread to the Mediterranean, Asia, Europe, and finally the Western Hemisphere.The lentil is a cousin of the bean and both are part of the legume family, which have seeds that grow within pods. The name “lentil” was inspired by their lens-like shape, with “lens” being the Latin word for “lentil.”
The size and appearance of lentils vary depending on the variety. The outer seed coat can be mottled or speckled and ranges in color from reddish-brown to grayish-brown to green. The inner coat, or cotyledon, can be red or yellow.
The chickpea was originally cultivated on the lands bordering Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean and has been grown in India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa for many years. Chickpeas are estimated to be at least 7,500 years old.
Between 80 and 90 percent of the world’s chickpea supply comes from India, while most acreage in the U.S. is in California, eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Acreage continues to grow to make up for supplies that formerly came from Mexico, which has in recent years cut back chickpea production in favor of pinto beans.
Like lentils, chickpeas take their name from their shape, which resembles the beak of a baby chick. Some may also know chickpeas by their other name, garbanzo beans.