Oswald Rivera

Author, Warrior, and Teacher

A Mess of Pottage

The first biblical account of a dish of food affecting human behavior occurs in Genesis 24:29-34, the first book of Moses, where Esau sells his birthright to his younger brother, Jacob, for a  “mess of pottage.” What we are talking about here is lentils, that Old World legume that is beloved in the Rivera family. Lentils are akin to liver. You either hate them or love them. And it’s interesting that this is the first food given a biblical reference.This is a big deal by all accounts. Esau was a “cunning hunter; a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man dwelling in tents.” Except that Jacob was the cunning one since he got his older brother to renounce his heritage for a plate of red lentils. Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, the patriarch of three of the world’s greatest religions. And it was Jacob who gave his people, the Israelites, a national conscience. It could have been Esau—had it not been for those pesky lentils, and the fact that he was starving. So one shrewd brother flimflams the other, and history is changed.

And what was so great about this freakin’ recipe? Actually, not much. No ingredient list is given in the Bible. Esau had come in from the fields and he was famished, simple as that. The story fascinates me and I’ve tried to emulate the recipe as Jacob, or his wife, would have prepared it. Onions, garlic and tomatoes were a staple in Ur, the important city in Mesopotamia (read modern day Iraq) during the fourth and third millenia B.C.E. Genesis 11:31 says that Abraham, originally Abram, migrated from “Ur of the Chaldeans” to the land of Canaan. In Ur they also had spices such as salt and pepper. I’m sure all these provisions were taken on the trek to the land God promised to the Israelites.

The recipe given is quite simple, just enhanced by natural ingredients. It comes from my second cookbook, The Pharaoh’s Feast (which was also published in England under the title Feasting with the Ancestors).

When I make lentils, I use it in conjunction with rice. Gives the old rice and beans combo a new twist. Lentils, like other dried beans, are quick and easy to prepare.  They may be sold hold or split into halves, and are good for you, providing a healthy source of cholesterol-lowering fiber. Which means they are good in preventing heart disease. They are also contain B-vitamins and protein, and virtually no fat. A whole cup of cooked lentils provides just 230 calories. Can’t go wrong with these suckers.


1 cup dried lentils
4 cups water
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced from the stem down into 1/2-inch thick moons
2 clove garlic, peeled and minced
Salt and ground pepper to taste
2 ripe tomatoes, sliced into half-moons

1. Wash lentils under cold running water.
2. In a large pot or casserole (a Dutch oven is good for this), cover the lentils with water. Cover the pot, bring to a boil, and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a medium skillet and add the onions and garlic. Saute for about 3 minutes or until the onions brown at the edges.
4. Add the onions and garlic to the lentils, plus the salt and pepper. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 45 minutes until the lentils are tender adding, more water if the mixture becomes too thick.
5. Serve garnished with tomatoes.
    Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

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1 Comment

  1. Tomatoes were unknown in the old world before the 16 century CE.

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