My Hometown: The Lentil Festival

When someone asks me where I’m from I answer “Staunton, Virginia”. I usually say it easily, casually. But really I’m not sure. I’m also from Seaford, Delaware, and Abilene, TX, and Colorado Springs, CO. And increasingly, now, I’m from Pullman, Washington. When I go to VA to visit family I tell friends, “I’m going home”. And when I’m with my family getting ready to return to Pullman I say, “I’m going home.” Is that a good thing? Does it broaden me? I don’t know. It’s disorienting.

But it’s also a blast. I like exploring. There’s something sweet about my first year in a new city. It’s a little lonely, but it’s fun. I try everything. Being alone gives me a fresh perspective on the goings-on around me. I especially like exploring new markets and festivals alone. Families are hanging out, kids are getting their faces painted, couples are walking arm-over-shoulder, and dogs are looking around at faces, panting, happy. My second week in Pullman (3 summers ago) I went to the Lentil Festival alone. This year I’ll go with some friends.

The city of Pullman holds the National Lentil Festival every year right before the academic season. The days are hot as hell, but getting shorter, and in stormy weather you can already sense Fall creeping up. The wheat and legume fields are turning yellow, with north-facing hills still slightly green. The town of 10,000 triples in population over a week as 20,000 undergrads move in for the school year. So the Lentil Festival is more than a celebration of the lowly lentil bean. It’s the first sign that the quiet, lazy days of summer are over and a new season of work has begun.

On Friday streets are barricaded off and booths are set up beside the library. Tase T. Lentil mills around the crowd, waving, swaying, silent, much like a lentil. If you’re under 3 feet tall you might go up to him and hug him. He’s that sort of lentil.

But don’t go into hysterics; save that for Sponge Bob.

Some local club always makes a giant pot of lentil chili. A man stands on a step-ladder above 200 gallons of the stuff and stirs it with a canoe paddle.

Frankly, there’s nothing appetizing about it. But you find yourself in line anyway, and a volunteer slops a ladle into your styrofoam bowl, and you spoon it in, and walk around with lentils on your beard or your shirt.

Later local bands take turns on stage. You can hang out in the beer garden. Paradise Creek and Palouse Falls Breweries bring out their best. For some reason the area is roped off. I think people like to drink in boxing rings.

On Saturday morning there is a parade. The town crowns a king and queen of the Festival.

But I never see them in the weeks following. The duties are likely burdensome.

You can put on short shorts and run or stumble for 5 kilometers after the parade.

Or you can put on tight shorts and ride your bicycle for 100 kilometers from Pullman to Palouse to Colfax and back. There are lots of hills in between.

One year I wore corduroy shorts and rode my fixed gear to show off. At 50 kilometers I thought I was going to die. If you’re lucky, you won’t die. If you’re even luckier, out on some country road, you may get to see a crop-duster up close. They fly so close to the ground! When they spray desiccant in your direction hold your breath.

One of the best parts of the Lentil Festival is the poster. Every year the festival committee chooses a local artist to make it. Many of them have been lovely. All around town you can see them as memorabilia from previous years’ festivals.

If you happen to be in Pullman in late August, spend some time at the Lentil Festival. Alone or with friends, it’ll be good. It’ll be orienting. I’ll be there.

(I stole the pics from lentilfest.com.)

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About mbdeaton

I study neutrino oscillations in neutron star mergers as a postdoc at North Carolina State University. Previously I was a graduate student at Washington State University, using the Spectral Einstein Code (SpEC) to simulate hydrodynamics in strong gravity. I like the following questions: What happens when black holes and neutron stars collide? What is the role of radiation (neutrinos!) in an event like that? What makes Fred and Doerte such fine teachers? What's physics for? What good can a scientist offer his local community, as a scientist?

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