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Among the leguminous plants which supply food for the invalid, and are endowed with certain qualifications for correcting the health, may be justly placed the Lentil, though we have to import it because our moist, cold climate is not favourable for its growth.
Nevertheless, it closely resembles the small purple vetch of our summer hedgerows at home. In France its pulse is much eaten during Lent—which season takes its name, as some authors suppose, from this penitential plant.
Men become under its subduing dietary influence, "lenti et lenes." The plant is cultivated freely in Egypt for the sake of the seeds, which are flat on both sides, growing in numerous pods.
The botanical name is Ervum lens; and about the year 1840 a Mr. Wharton sold the flour of Lentils under the name of Ervalenta, this being then of a primrose colour. He failed in his enterprise, and Du Barry took up the business, but substituting the red Arabian Lentil for the yellow German pulse.
Joseph's mess of pottage which he sold to Esau for his birthright was a preparation of the red Lentil: and the same food was the bread of Ezekiel.
The legumin contained in this vegetable is very light and sustaining, but it is apt to form unwholesome combinations with any earthy salts taken in other articles of food, or in the water used in cooking; therefore Lemon juice or vinegar is a desirable addition to Lentils at table. This is because of the phosphates contained so abundantly, and liable to become deposited in the urine. "Lentils," says Gerard, "are singular good to stay the menses." They are traditionally regarded as funeral plants, and formerly they were forbidden at sacrifices and feasts.
Parkinson said, "The country people sow it in the fields as food for their cattle, and call it 'tills', leaving out the 'lent', as thinking that word agreeth not with the matter." "Ita sus Minervam." In Hampshire the plant is known as "tils," and in Oxfordshire as "dills." The Romans supposed it made people indolent and torpid, therefore they named the plant from lentus, slow.