Lentils are actually one of the first foods to show up in Western literature. The Bible’s Old Testament tells us they played a dramatic role in the sibling rivalry of Abraham’s grandsons in what may have been the dumbest business deal. Ever.
I don’t think you have to dislike lentils as much as I do to be puzzled by that factoid, which appears in every historical description of these little legumes: Esau traded his entire birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew.
Esau and Jacob, you may remember, were the sons of Isaac, and grandsons of Abraham.
“So when Esau comes home from hunting, he’s very hungry, and his brother Jacob is making this lentil stew, and he says, ‘Gimme some of that red stuff!’ ” explained University of Chicago biblical scholar Jeffrey Stackert, who helped me make sense of this story.
“Jacob sees it as an opportunity. He says, ‘Ok, but trade me your birthright for the stew.’ And Esau says, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ And Jacob says, ‘Swear to me.’ And so he swears,” Stackert said.
Now either this is the most extraordinary bowl of lentil soup ever served, or this was a business deal of monumental stupidity. Bingo, said Stackert.
Far from being an endorsement of the yumminess of lentils, the real point of the story is to explain how Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, became known as simpletons.
“Therefore, his name was called EDOM, which is the same word, with a slightly different vocalization, as ‘the red stuff,’ which shows up twice earlier in the verse,” Stackert said. “... It’s a folk etymology for the name of the Edomites, and a little play on words.”
Kind of like: Hey dude, how dumb was Esau, father of the Edomites? So dumb he traded his birthright for a bowl of red lentil soup.
But you still have to wonder how good that original bowl of soup really was. How good are lentils, ever?
Professor Stackert shared my skepticism: “It’s true, I’m not the biggest fan of lentils… I’m a bit of a finicky eater.”
So I scoured the Chicago restaurant scene for a restaurant that might be able to change our shared opinion about lentils. Pars Cove, a Persian restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, has a vocal fan base of Yelpers who rave about the lentil soup. Max Pars, the owner, said lentils are as much a staple ingredient in Iranian cuisine today as they were to the ancient Israelites in biblical times.
“It’s nutritious, it’s healthy, it has protein,” Pars said. “And a lot of people they eat unhealthy food, and this is one of the good things I can do for them.”
His recipe came from an Iranian friend, and it’s been on the menu for most of the 36 years he’s been in business.
“Gourmet magazine, several times they were after me, they wanted the recipe for the soup,” Pars said.
Then the soup arrived.
“Oh…so this is it,” I said, as I took a bite.
“ It’s very good!” Stackert said. “It’s better than I’ve had in the past.”
The Yelpers are right. It’s light and velvety, delicately laced with cumin, garlic and other fresh vegetables. And the best thing about it is, you don’t have to sell your birthright for it. Because at Pars Cove, the lentil soup always comes free with the rest of your dinner.
Nina Barrett is a James Beard Award-winning food contributor.