pulse of the palouse

Traveling north of 60 …

“Prove thy servants, I beseech thee, ten days; and let them give us pulse to eat, and water to drink. … So, for ten days, Daniel and his friends ate pulse and drank water while all the other servants ate the king’s meat.” Daniel 1:12

Although Whitman County, Washington is the largest wheat-growing region in the country, it is also known for the pulse crops mentioned in the Bible. The word “pulse” flew under my radar for years, until a day when our son came home from elementary school enthusiastically telling the story of how the prophet Daniel chose to eat pulse and then thrived from the diet.

With passing interest, I just figured pulse was some sort of oat porridge, and indeed, the word is derived from the Greek “póltos” and the Latin “puls,” meaning porridge or thick soup. But it wasn’t until our recent trip to eastern Washington that I came to understand “pulses” and pulse crops – which certainly do not include oats.

My farming family grew everything from sugar beets to tomatoes for ketchup production, but I never considered where pulses like lentils and chickpeas came from. Yes, the Palouse is wheat country, and although the principal growing region for pulses has shifted to the northern plains, pulse crops remain an important part of the crop rotation in the Palouse.

Although the word is not well known in the United States, a good bit of the rest of the world uses the word pulses to describe a group of dry seed and bean legumes. Pulses include lentils, chickpeas and dry green and yellow peas. They also include dry beans, such as pinto, fava and kidney beans. Pulses don’t include peanuts, or peas or beans that are eaten fresh. All pulses are legumes, but not all legumes are pulses.

Since 1916 farmers in the Palouse region of Washington State used lentils for crop rotation out of necessity.  They were usually planted in fields that would otherwise lie fallow, where they pulled nitrogen from their surroundings and return it to the soil in a form that’s accessible for the next wheat crop.

With so many lentils grown in the Palouse, it was natural for the town of Pullman, Washington to begin hosting the National Lentil Festival each August. I checked out the featured “Legendary Lentil Cook-off”, and the winners sounded amazing with dishes like Lentil & Quinoa Sliders with Blackberry Barbecue Sauce, Lentil Crusted Cheesy Potato Croquettes with Creamy Sun-Dried Tomato Sauce and Saucy Fajita-Style Chicken & Lentil Stew.

Lentils are one of the first domesticated crops and are still one of the most widely used pulses today. There are at least 14 different kinds of lentils and classifying them gets a bit complicated, but to keep it simple, the basic groups are red lentils, green lentils, and brown lentils.

The star of the show, though, seems to be chickpeas or garbanzo beans. In 1981, “garbs” made their way into the crop rotation in Whitman County, Washington, probably due to poor prices for dry peas and lentils, as well as advances in weed control and blight resistance that made growing garbs much more viable.

There are two main varieties of chickpeas, kabuli and desi. Small, dark desi chickpeas have a yellow interior. Kabuli are large, and beige-colored throughout, with a thin skin, and are the ones we call garbanzo beans. Of the kabuli type beans, I also noticed separate grain price listings for the sierra and newer nash varieties.

It has just been in the past couple of decades that garbanzo beans have made their way into the American diet, perhaps starting with a few chickpeas tucked into restaurant salad bar offerings.  Then thanks to a big marketing push by PepsiCo and the Sabra brand, Americans have come to love garbanzo beans in the form of hummus. Domestic demand for the beans now consumes 60 percent of the US crop as opposed to 30 percent of lentils and dry peas.

I provided a list of references below, but I also found Palouse Brand in Palouse, Washington to be a great resource for learning about pulse products.  Palouse Brand is a farm family company and in addition to direct-to-consumer sales of fine lentils, peas and grains, their products are now available through Amazon.

Like the earnest Saturday night crop discussions of my youth, my reflections on pulses might continue for a good while. I have a couple more subjects to cover in the next installments, but for now, I will leave you with one of my favorite images of the Palouse taken from Steptoe Butte.









The Palouse area of Western Washington, State

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