Although Middle Eastern cooks who found themselves in the United States undoubtedly found sources of such a vital ingredient, it wasn’t until the last couple of decades that the chickpea made its way into the American diet and moved up from the bottom shelf at the supermarket. It can be said with some confidence that chickpeas did not find their way into church carry-ins (potlucks to you non-Midwesterners) until very recently.
The chickpea’s introduction to American cuisine probably started with the salad bar, suggests Phil Hinrichs ’80, president of Hinrichs Trading Company, which processes and distributes chickpeas primarily to a domestic market. Remember those odd light golden wrinkled round beans squeezed between the pepperoncini and chopped black olives? Odd as they were, though, a big dollop of blue cheese dressing could make the exotic bean acceptable to even the most staid middle-American palate.
New as it may be here, the chickpea is a long-established culinary icon in many cultures.
In the “Capitulare de Villis,” a document issued circa 812, Charlemagne dedicated the last chapter to a list of plants he wanted in his garden. One of them was the chickpea.
In the Iliad, Homer compares the arrows of Helenus bouncing off the breastplate of his Greek opponent Menelaus to the bouncing of beans and erebinthos, chickpeas, on the winnower’s basket.
Although eaten mostly by the poor, the chickpea was a staple in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Priests and scholars cautioned they might inhibit higher spiritual principles and clear thinking. Though not stated outright, the reason might well be either the accompanying flatulence or the legume’s alleged aphrodisiacal properties. The second meaning of erebinthos is “testis.”
On the other hand, more enlightened commentators recommended the chickpea as a healthy food, and Pliny described the chickpea as a venerium in honor of goddesses.
In short, the chickpea has long been a staple in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. Archaeologists have found chickpeas in Turkey dating back to around 5450 BC. They made their way to the New World via Columbus and quickly established themselves in Central and South American diets.
But here on the Palouse, they didn’t really catch on until the early 1980s.
Although WSC agronomy professor Dawson Moodie published a paper on the feasibility of chickpeas on the Palouse in the 1940s, researchers found weed control to be the main obstacle to growing chickpeas in eastern Washington. They are slow to germinate and emerge and do not compete well with weeds.
The breakthrough, says Fred Muehlbauer, was the development of appropriate pre-emergent herbicides in the early 1980s. Muehlbauer, who retired just a few years ago, was the U.S. Department of Agriculture legume breeder at WSU for years. His predecessor had some experimental seed plots of chickpeas from Mexico, and he finally convinced Dwelley Jones of Walla Walla to try a small planting. Muehlbauer hauled a 75-pound bag of seed to his farm, and Jones gave it a shot, even though planting the large seeds with equipment geared to smaller seed was a challenge.
Muehlbauer gave the other bag to Sanford Evans of Genesee, Idaho, who, like Jones, got a good crop. They were hooked. And got the first two registered varieties, Dwelley and Sanford, named after them.
About the same time, Phil Hinrichs’s father, Bob Hinrichs ’54, decided to diversify his pea and lentil seed business. He hauled two truckloads of chickpea seed up from Mexico and established a small grower base.
Convincing growers to try this new crop took some fast talking. Chickpeas require 30 more days to mature than lentils, which takes harvest into early September.
And then there’s the blight, Ascochyta, which was not part of the sales talk because no one knew about it.
The blight spread quickly, says Muehlbauer. Growers tried skipping a year of planting, hoping the blight spores would die. But no such luck. It came right back.
Besides work by agronomists and pathologists to develop techniques to control the blight, Muehlbauer focused on breeding resistance. The blight persists, but WSU researchers and growers, as well as fungicides, have prevailed. Production continues to grow by 15 percent a year, says Hinrichs.
Even though the chickpea originates from a more subtropical climate, it seems to be well-suited to the warmer, drier reaches of the Palouse.
That simple fact seems to give great satisfaction to George Vandemark, the current USDA legume breeder at WSU. He praises Muehlbauer for handing him lines of chickpeas with pretty solid Ascochyta resistance bred into them, so he can concentrate on yield and seed quality.
And on the role of chickpeas, and other legumes, in the world food supply.
Cool season legumes contribute about 8 percent of vegetable protein in the world’s diet, but on far less than 8 percent of the arable land. And chickpeas, as with other legumes, add nitrogen to the soil, a huge plus as petroleum-based fertilizer climbs dramatically in cost.
But chickpeas also taste great, even as the main source of protein in a meal to a diehard carnivore such as myself.
As I write, I’m munching on sautéed chickpeas, which are delicious. Muehlbauer recalls a method of dry roasting he observed in Turkey. A large quantity of sand is heated on a griddle. Once it is very hot, the cook will throw boiled chickpeas in the sand. They’re stirred until roasted by the hot sand, then dumped into a sieve, which sifts out the sand. This is one method of fixing leblebi, a popular snack.
“The reason chickpeas are so good,” he continues, “is their high oil content.” Three percent. It gives them a smooth and creamy texture and taste.
For his part, Hinrichs is jazzed on hummus. He waxes wistfully on appetizers at a recent party— hummus spread on a cracker, anchoring thin slivers of Cougar Gold and jalapeño.
Eighty percent of our pea production is exported, as is the case with 70-80 percent of lentils, says Vandemark. But only 40 percent of our chickpeas leave the country. “That’s because of domestic demand, primarily for hummus.”
And Hinrichs Trading Company is feeding a market that continues to grow impressively.
According to the New York Times, over the last 15 years hummus has grown from a $5 million business to dominating its sales category, “refrigerated flavored spreads,” which account for $325 million in annual retail sales.