EVERY AUGUST, the National Lentil Festival (www.lentilfest.com) parades through Pullman, Washington. Pullman, located in the Palouse region of farmlands in Eastern Washington, borders northern Idaho. Driving through vast fields of wheat, rolling golden on gentle hills under super-saturated blue sky, you could get swallowed up in the expansive calm of the landscape around the home of WSU. This region produces virtually all lentils grown commercially in the U.S.--about 135 million pounds a year.

Besides hosting the lentil center of the universe, the incredibly rich topsoil is ideal for growing peas and specialty beans. The 1980s gourmands' enthusiasm for unusual ingredients sparked a "new" bean movement--Palouse farmers now grow exotic bean varieties such as the fantastic, red-licked Tongues of Fire; russet-dappled Rattlesnake; gigantic, deep crimson Christmas limas; small, elongated, pale green and delicately flavored flageolet, and the tiny, nutty-tasting French green lentil, prized for its superior flavor and its ability to hold its shape.

Lentils are allowed to dry naturally on the vine in the Palouse summer sun and are harvested in late summer by combines. The seeds are then mechanically separated from pods, sorted, and shipped all over the world. To celebrate legume culture, Pullman's Lentil Festival kicks off with the popular lentil pancake breakfast, after which one can proceed down Lentil Lane Foodcourt, sampling lentil ice cream and the like, amble by lentil arts-n-crafts, and witness the lentil cook-off and parade. Residents acknowledge, however, that the festival really took off after the introduction of the Lentil Beer Garden three years ago.

Thanks to the farmers of the Palouse, these beans, from the highfalutin to the lowly lentil, are readily available in bulk food sections of health food stores or local supermarkets like Ballard Market in Seattle. Next to exotic "new" beans, the lentil, a mere gray-green disk, is the sensible shoe of legumes. Downright cheap and relatively quick-cooking, there is none better than the unassuming lentil for substantive, humble food.

My case in point: One miserable, wet and cold Sunday, I wound up in Magnolia Village, seeking a restorative bowl of soup. A tiny sandwich shop, Graze (as in, cows do it), was open and beckoned with its four spicy chickens ($14 whole, $8 half) roasting on spits in their high tech infra-red rotisserie. In spite of the slow-roasting chicken scent, my fellow soup pilgrim ordered the smoked, pulled BBQ Pork Sandwich ($6.50) served on fat slices of buttered Texas Toast. A layer of crunchy scallion slaw set off the deep, rich pork nicely, lightening up a potentially death-inducing sandwich. A post-meal nap was ensured by a side of super-garlicky mashed taters ($2). Although too garlic-sweet and salty for me, they scored top ratings from my associate.

I ordered the Steak Sandwich, grilled medium rare to order, shaved thin, and set up with cheddar, fresh spinach, and secret sauce ($7). This very serious steak sandwich, crafted by a man who obviously cares deeply about sandwiches, disappointed with overly moist, squishy whole wheat bread. But the soup selection did not. After a brief discussion about cassoulet (usually available) and French food being 30 percent duck fat, I felt I could trust this man, in his chef's white shirt, well-worn checks, and clogs, so I stepped up to a small bowl of his Lentil Soup ($3.50). Gray prepared our food with the gravity and craftsmanship of a sushi chef.

As I tucked into my soup, a lentil epiphany transported me to the warm, dry Palouse, and, savoring each bite of the thick lentil and bratwurst stew, I meditated on that most diffident of legumes. While Magnolia Village offers no real reason to visit unless you live there, residents are blessed by Graze, a neighborhood delight run by a devoted, discerning chef. Gray's soup is miles away from my own thinner, Greek-style lentil soup cure for head colds and hangovers, but it sounded the conch shell for all lentils.


2233 32nd Ave W, 270-9150. Tues-Sun 11 am-8 pm, no alcohol. $

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-$20; $$$ = $20 and up

Cheap-N-Easy Restorative Lentil Soup

Take 2 cups uncooked lentils, rinsed; 8 cups water plus 2 teaspoons salt, or vegetable or chicken broth (Swanson's is an okay substitute for homemade); 1 onion, diced; 1 carrot, chopped; 2 celery stalks, chopped; 1 potato (red or Yukon Gold are best), diced; 2 cloves garlic, minced; 2 bay leaves; pinch of oregano; 2 tablespoons olive oil, and mix in soup pot, bring to a boil, lower heat to simmer, and cook gently until lentils are soft, about an hour. Stir in 2 teaspoons (or more, to taste) of red wine vinegar at the end.