There was a moment during the early 2000s when all of a sudden it became easy to find beautiful European varieties of lentils on the shelves of Trader Joes or Erewhon or Whole Foods. My chef Kathy and I would empty the store shelves of every bag of Pardina or Du Puy type lentils when we were lucky enough to find them. We’d bring them back to the storeroom at Angeli where we’d feel rich just looking at the bags of perfectly cleaned legumes stacked up according to type. We started making a whole slew of dishes that just weren’t right when made with regular green lentils. We needed these lenticchie corpose, sturdy legumes, that didn’t turn to mush. I no longer had to come home from Italy with a suitcase full of what some saw as animal feed. The name on the bags was Timeless.
How did I not key into the story behind my successful grocery foraging? And what a story it is, told engagingly by author Liz Carlisle in Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America.
There is an element of strange circular perfection to hearing this story barely a year after reading Dan Barber’s Third Plate in whichthe chef/author crys out for the consumer to understand that food producers need to be able to sell, not one product, but every piece of their farming rotation. This is the success of Dave Oien and Timeless. They managed to build and sell soil fertility from a difficult region where cattle and the mono-culture of grains had always been the way to go.
The book has everything. A group of Montana farmers turning one at a time away from “conventional” ag to organics. The saga of what it’s like to be a renegade in your own community. How political affiliation loses meaning in the face of sharing common difficulties. Extension agent mentors who become students as their constituents go down a path they don’t understand.
As consumers we often think that farming is a top down occupation that’s fairly linear. You decide on land and what you want to grow then you just do it according to a particular philosophy or set of rules. Not even close. The land, weather, distribution systems, consumer desires, financial wherewithal conspire to create a rocky landscape that’s tough for any farmer. Go against the grain (so to speak) of cereal monoculture in this part of Montana and it’s like walking on the edge of a constantly shifting lava field.
Then there’s the social pushback you get when you plant what most in your community see as weeds. So you’re planting weeds and working day jobs. Finally there’s the aha moment when you realize that the crops you were planting to build soil fertility and combat erosion could be sold to consumers as food, not just to other farmers as cover crop seed.
The story of how a group of farmers fell into an orbit around renegade farmer Dave Oien to join Timeless is so odd and so powerful. It’s a story of how a community was created from the ground up and how we chefs and eaters became the beneficiaries of a expanded range of foodstuffs.
ps. If you’ve read this far and now you’re hungry for lentils, here’s a recipe for you.