A few evenings ago my wife made a gigantic pot of lentil stew. We have both been very low on money and we were trying to find ways to save money. My wife had the idea of making a large pot of lentil stew that we could feed off of for days. Lunch and dinner for at least three days was the initial plan. My wife added potatoes, carrots, onions, cilantro, peppers and kale to the stew, which seemed to grow as it sat simmering on our electric stovetop. When my grandmother lived in Communist Russia and suffered through the food shortages and poverty that was an epidemic in the 1940’s and 50’s, her mother would make a massive pot of lentil stew to feed the whole family with for a week. Now that my wife and I are living through an economic crisis of equal proportion, we decided that it was a perfect time to use the recipe for this lentil stew that my grandmother gave to us on her deathbed.
As the lentil stew simmered on the stove I stood over it in the same way that a man would pray at a shrine. I had my eyes closed, hands clasped and I breathed deeply. I was reminded of a time when food was more plentiful and economic woes were no place to be found. Another way that my wife and I are trying to save money is by not using any heat in our house, so I also used the simmering stew as my heater. I would grab a book or a magazine and read by the stew. My grandmother’s recipe said that the stew had to simmer for eight hours and I spent every moment by its side. I read an article about the thousands of people who have lost their homes and gone bankrupt because of medical bills that they could not afford to pay. I read another article about how the richest Americans are living the high life, “rolling in economic prosperity” while 97 percent of Americans are in some way struggling economically. The article talked about how the main consensus amongst the wealthy is that they would like to see Julian Assange jailed or assassinated because he is exposing the lies and corruption of the American government, whose job it is to work for the rich. I read all of this as I hovered over the simmering lentil stew, longing for the time when it would be time to eat.
That night at dinner I consumed three bowls of lentil stew quicker than my dog plows through a bowl filled with kibble. My wife and I did not talk much since she has been struggling through a wintertime spell of depression. Since we are trying to save money we no longer buy much wine and beer. We go a few days a week without a drink but that night at dinner she nursed a glass filled with some whiskey that was donated to us by a friend who owns a successful restaurant in San Francisco. My wife is in her final year of graduate school and the stress of her program, and the worries that coagulate in her mind (worries about what she is going to do when she is done) sometimes cause her to become quieter than a silent film. When I got up from our small dinner table to get a fourth bowl of lentil stew my wife suddenly blurted out, “how many lentils can you eat?” I turned to her and said, “I am so hungry that I bet you I can eat more lentils than any other man in the world.” She chuckled and said “no way.” I reminded her that our economic woes have caused me to have to go days on end with very little food. “The recession may cause a lot of economic despair but it also creates a lot of hungry men,” I said with an upturned grin on my face. It was at this point that my wife lifted her wallowing head, pointed both her wide eyes in my direction and said, “I have a challenge for you.”
I have always loved a good challenge, especially in times of despair. Challenges distract my mind; take my consciousness to another level. The last good challenge that I had was a few years ago. A friend of mine bet me one hundred dollars that I could not walk in a straight line for one mile through downtown San Francisco. I took the challenge and with my friend following me I managed to walk in a straight line for more than three miles. I walked through stranger’s homes, through gas stations and office buildings. I had to walk through a police station and several restaurants, but somehow I managed to walk in a straight line through the heart of the city. Sitting at the dinner table with my fourth bowl of lentil stew in my hand, my wife challenged me to eat 5,000 lentils in one day. She told me that there where at least that many lentils in the stew that she made and she would give me until 7pm the following day to eat the lentils. “Do I need to count every lentil I eat?” I asked. “Duh,” she replied. “How else would I know if you ate 5,000 lentils?”
Since I myself am unemployed and on winter break from graduate school- I had nothing to do the following day. I woke early to prepare myself for the challenge. I boiled a pot of hot water on the stove to get warm and I then did thirty minutes of meditation, where I visualized myself winning the challenge. I saw myself jumping up and down after I ate the final lentil, a victorious smile upon my face. My wife would not be home that day but she told me that she trusted me enough to not lie about the amount of lentils that I ate. I may be a poor man but I am no liar, so I appreciated her faith in me not being a cheater. When I was done with my meditation I took the ten-pound pot of left over lentil stew, warmed it up on the stove and began to eat one lentil at a time. Each lentil I ate I counted out loud and every fiftieth lentil I would make a note of on a pad of paper.
I spent the afternoon in my kitchen. I was hovered over the simmering stew pulling lentil after lentil out of the pot. On the busy street outside of my house I could hear the sounds of cars, busses and people. I heard the mailman drop of the daily mail. The symphony of commerce and daily toil was in full swing as I sat in the solitude of my impoverished kitchen eating lentils. Every hour or so I had to take a break. I would go into my living room and stretch out on the fading green carpet that I inherited from my grandmother. I would lie on my back and remember a time in my youth when my days were filled with tennis lessons, private tutoring and three large meals a day. I remembered my heated bedroom, the white carpet that I would often lay down upon, the large swimming pool in my backyard and the feel of economic prosperity that ran through my childhood memories. “Now I am living in a cold house where I cannot afford to pay the heating bill. How things change overtime,” I thought to myself. Rain came down outside, I stared at the ceiling and tried to find a way to eat more than 5,000 lentils.
Psychologists often suggest that in times of distress the human mind distracts itself with the most superficial preoccupations. This is often referred to as the denial syndrome. The idea is that often the real reality of a person’s life is too large and troubling for the human mind to comprehend. So the mind has a built in mechanism, which allows it to focus on things that are not as threatening to its survival. I realize that spending my day focusing on eating 5,000 lentils was a way for me to avoid thinking about more pressing concerns. I had bill collectors I needed to call. I needed to contest inaccurate charges on a medical bill. I needed to look for a job and register for my next semester of classes. I also needed to clean out the birdcage, exercise, clean the bathroom and check in on my 90-year-old neighbor who spends her days staring at a blank wall. But I managed to avoid all of this and more by focusing all of my attention on getting that number 5,001 lentil into my mouth. I got my lanky body off the floor and continued to eat lentils.
Time has a way of passing without my awareness when I am deeply immersed in a task. When my wife came home at around 6pm it was already dark out. I had not noticed the transition from light to dark because my head was buried in a pot filled with lentil stew. I heard my wife complain about how cold and dark the house was and I answered by saying, “welcome to our America.” In my attempts to save money I insist upon keeping as many light off as possible and my wife does not like living in the dark. When she came into the kitchen she noticed that I was still dressed in the clothes that I slept in. She asked me how close I was to eating 5,000 lentils. As I put a lentil in my mouth and slowly chewed it- I pointed to the piece of paper that I was using to keep track of every lentil that I ate. She began to count up all of my markings and when she was done counting she let out a small, victorious laugh. “Ha!” she said. “You have only eaten 2, 203 lentils?” she asked. “If that is what it says than that is how many lentils I have eaten,” I replied. She came up close to me and said, “well your still my champion.” She grabbed my penis and then gave me a kiss on the cheek before walking away.
It was at that point I knew that I had lost the lentil challenge. I may be one of the hungriest men in the world- but there was no way that I was going to be able to eat 5,000 lentils. If it took me the whole day to eat 2,203 lentils then it would take me all night and some of the morning to reach 5,000 lentils. One of the virtues of growing older is that I have learned when to accept defeat. I believe that it was the essayist Montaigne who wrote, “a wise man is able to smile when they have lost and congratulate the victor.” I nodded my head and walked away from the pot of lentil stew. Slowly I walked to the bedroom where my wife was changing into several layers of thermal underwear, sweaters and socks. “It is going to be cold tonight,” she said as she slipped a sweater over her head. I swallowed and then suddenly felt sad that this had become my life. I never thought that things were going to turn out this way. “What’s wrong?” my wife asked as she put on gloves. “Nothing,” I replied with a superficial smile. She came up close to me and took my arms in her gloved hands. “You did the best you could sweetheart,” she said looking me in the eyes. I did not want to talk about it so I asked, “what’s for dinner?” My wife chuckled and as she walked past me towards the kitchen she said, “lentil stew.”