mom's lentils

Happy Mother's Day to my mom, who taught me how to make something sweet from humble lentils.

You just left a stressful business meeting and you have an hour and a half to make lunch for fifty people. 

Don’t panic.

Look in the industrial sized community fridge for leftovers and find enough to feed eight maybe ten people. 

Breathe.  You can do this.

Remember there are always lentils, those quick cooking gems of simplicity.

Put four pounds in a big pot, rinse well and cover with plenty of water, drop in four bay leaves and turn on the heat.  Go for the mondo rice cooker and measure fourteen cups of rice.  Rinse well cover with enough water and remember to plug it in and turn it on.  Look at the clock- you’ve got time.  Pull out hummous and baba ghanoush from the fridge and defrost a few bags of pita bread.  Discover that someone else in the community sliced five gallons of sweet potatoes into fries and sing a sweet hallelujah.  This lunch will be more than OK. 

Realize you are not alone.   Earlier that morning your jaw dropped in the meeting when it was casually announced that there would be ten extra people at lunch.  Mercy was shown and a volunteer was made available to help you with a task that is usually done by one person. She sets cups and pitchers of water on the tables. She puts away all of the clean dishes and washes all of the ones you will dirty.  She slices the bag of mini peppers you found in the fridge.  She slices them thinly, as you instructed, so that everyone can get some.  She smiles when you say you are making sweet and sour lentils.  Her mom had visited a few weeks earlier and complemented you when you made the dish, “Your lentils are good. Whenever I make lentils they taste like dirt. Yours do not taste like dirt.”  You can’t expect much more from a complement for a pot of lentils.

You spread the fries in a single layer on three large baking sheets and drizzle a little oil on them and stir then spread them back flat and pop them in the oven.

Your husband sits near the kitchen with another man eating cheese and crackers and talks about a maintenance project. You know that they both work plenty, but they are not working now.  You sweetly tell your hubby how much it bugs you to see him having a snack right there, right now. He smiles and offers you some cheese and crackers. The other man offers to help.  You decline both and get out four large onions.

Another coworker walks into the kitchen and asks to use two stove burners to heat up lunch for the Congolese family that will be arriving soon.  She will serve them lunch in the small house that will be their home for the next two months but doesn’t want to dirty up their freshly cleaned kitchen.  They will get a dish made with meat which we usually don’t serve during the week. The lentils simmer and soften on the back burner and there is room for her pots.  You feel like Brother Lawrence, so close to God in the clamor of the kitchen, and do not begrudge your sisters need for space there. 

You try to suppress your insecurity about making lunch for the ten guests that are on their way.  They work for a local refugee resettlement agency and most of them are themselves refugees or the children of people from Somalia, Vietnam, Bhutan, Sudan.  They left behind the hell of war but carried with them food traditions that taste like heaven.  You peel and dice the onions for your mom’s sweet and sour lentils recipe from the More with Less Cookbook and try not to feel inadequate.  No chili peppers, ginger, lemongrass or mélange of spices. Just boil the lentils with bay leaves and enough water to be sure they don’t burn.  When they are soft, add equal parts apple cider vinegar and apple (or pineapple) juice.  The recipe calls for an equal part of sugar but it is fine with less.  A pinch of ground cloves.  Salt.  Stir in sautéed onions.  Don’t forget salt. Simmer until bubbly and serve over rice.  Usually throw in some minced garlic but there is no pre-chopped garlic in the fridge and the clock is ticking too fast to squash and mince enough garlic to taste a difference.

Resign yourself to the fact that it is only food.  There will be enough for everyone to eat and no one will go hungry.  Fifteen minutes before you are supposed to be done you hear a shout from across the dining room, “They brought food!”  Your heart sinks and rises at this announcement. You didn’t need to make so much.  Why didn’t anyone tell you they were bringing food? Why didn’t you remember that they brought food the last time they visited?

Realize that your pride is wounded; no one will want your bubbly pot of plain old “don’t taste like dirt” lentils. 

Suddenly you are tasked with warming up food for an international potluck.  You slice pork dumplings in half so that people at the end of the line will get a taste. You pour chickpea and tomato stew out of the turmeric stained plastic container into a pot to warm on a burner that is now free.  Fragrant rice pilaf goes into a pan to warm in the oven.  Your dear helper washes all of the Tupperware so that it can be returned.  You find serving utensils for Vietnamese noodles, plug in a crockpot of chick pea spinach and potato soup.  The only white guy among the visitors hands you a plastic bag with tortilla chips, a box of Cheezits, and a half filled container of white icing.  You give a puzzled look first to the icing and then to the bearer of the bag. “They said we should bring food so I just cleaned out my desk.”  You set the icing aside on the counter.

The guests begin introducing themselves and talking to the community about refugee resettlement work while you try to quietly fry the onions in a cast iron skillet.  They crackle and pop and refuse to quiet down.  So you put a lid on them and turn down the heat while you clean up onion peels and wipe down the counters.  You pull the sweet potato fries out of the oven.  Set out a stack of plates.  You notice a burning smell.  The onions! You lift the lid and loud crackly steam escapes from the pan.  The onions have formed a crisp oily carmelized black layer on the bottom and are white and translucent on top.  You put the lid back on and remind yourself that you are not going to panic.

You want to be invisible so you slip out the back door and set the hot pan on the cool damp ground. You bend over the iron skillet and stir until the onions are evenly brown.  Wind blows the oniony smoke and you imagine yourself connected through that smoke to the women all over the world, cooking outside and making do with what they’ve got.  You head back to the kitchen and pour the onions into the bubbling pot of lentils. Another angel appears to help you get the rice out of the rice cooker and to fit all the simmering pots onto the serving table.

The food is blessed and people line up to eat. When it is time to fix your own plate you eagerly grab for all the colors and flavors that have appeared, as if by magic, to this impromptu feast.  Your giant pot of lentils stares at you like a jilted lover but you don’t even give it a glance.

As you bring your empty plate to the sink a Somali woman pulls you aside and asks, “Did you make the lentils?”

“Yes?” You answer hesitantly.

“We loved them!  How did you do it?”

You tell her the simple recipe and her friend has now piped in, “Oh they were so good, that’s how I am going to do lentils now!”  You hug them, your heart swells and you say, “It’s my mom’s recipe.”
Your mom who does not like to cook.  Your mom who always leaves the cooking to your dad.  Your mom who marvels at the things you cook as if they came from another planet and says, “She didn’t learn it from me.”  Your mom who has an insatiable sweet tooth and likes white sheet cake with thick colorful icing.  Your mom who thinks the best way to eat lettuce fresh from the garden is with a little sugar sprinkled on it. Your mom taught you how to make sweet and sour lentils.  Lentils that do not taste like dirt, lentils that taste good even to people who were raised with flavor. It must be the sugar. You receive their complement as a gift and return to them your mom’s recipe.
Sweet and Sour Lentils (slightly modified with abundant thanks to the More With Less Cookbook which kept me well fed through my childhood and beyond)
Rinse a one pound bag of brown lentils and put in a pot with enough water (you want them to soften and not be too soupy but definitely not too dry- err on the side of too much water).  Drop in one bay leaf and bring to a boil then simmer for 20 minutes.
When the lentils are soft add:
½ cup of apple or pineapple juice
½ cup of apple cider vinegar
¼- ½  cup of brown sugar (you can also use white sugar plus a tablespoon of molasses or sourghum or only sourghum)
¼ t of ground cloves
2 cloves of minced garlic
Sautee a large onion  (better yet, slightly burn and carme
lize them in a cast iron pan) stir in and simmer until bubbly
Salt to taste (add the salt when it is done because salt can slow the cooking of legumes)
Serve over rice with sides of sweet potatoes and greens.  Also goes well with an international potluck.


  1. Thank you for this funny story and wonderful recipe!

  2. Your welcome Coretta, glad it made you laugh!


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