Vegetables |

VEGETABLES. Vegetables are plants considered fit for human consumption, although they may also double as fodder crops for domesticated animals. As cultural metaphors, they are firmly embedded in all languages and emerge in such expressions as “hot tomato” for an attractive woman, “cabbage head” for someone who is not too bright, or “cool as a cucumber” in reference to extremely calm nerves. However, from a scientific standpoint, the use of the term “vegetable” is highly subjective and is a term of convenience rather than one based on a neatly ordered scientific classification. This ambiguity evolved out of horticultural practice and to some extent out of cultural bias hinging on the key question: what is fit to eat? The vegetable of one culture may be repulsive to another, as, for example, the cannibal’s tomato (Solanum uporo Dunal) of Melanesia and Polynesia, which was formerly used in salsas for human flesh. On Fiji, the berry was actually cultivated near sites designated for human sacrifice.

Vegetable classification as defined by Western culture derives in part from prescientific attitudes about the mythic world to which those plants belonged in antiquity. Both the Greeks and Romans—and most other ancient Mediterranean peoples—differentiated between two types of edible plants, holera or olera (cultivated plants) and horta (wild plants gathered as food). This dichotomy was presided over by different sets of deities who represented fundamental attitudes about human society and its relationship to nature. We have inherited this structural framework insofar as vegetables are now exclusively defined as oleraceous or esculent herbs, as cultivated in the hortus oleritus (kitchen garden). Thus the formal botanical term for growing vegetables is “oleri-culture.”

The idea that certain vegetables were suitable for boiling (or conversely that only boiling plants were “vegetables”) was highly developed even in ancient Greece. The implication arising from this was that these plants were also worthy of domestication. The ancient Greek physician Diocles of Carystus even went so far as to note that, among the horta, beet greens, mallows, sorrel, nettle, orach, iris corms, truffles, and mushrooms were the most suitable for boiling. His beet greens were the ones found growing near the sea, not those cultivated in gardens, presumably the wild ancestor (Beta vulgaris L. spp. maritima) of the present-day cultivated sorts.

In most romance languages this association with boiling or poaching is further reinforced by such cognates of oleritus as Spanish olla (a cook pot or stewing pot), implying that the kitchen garden is designed to produce plants mostly earmarked for treatment in hot water. This connotation is clear in the word Gemüse, the German term for vegetables that derives from the medieval German Gemüsz, a mush or porridge. The idea of cooking or boiling the plants is preeminently expressed in the French term jardin potager, literally ‘a garden for pot dishes: soups and stews.’

The French have also provided English with the word “vegetable.” Its most literal meaning is plain: edible vegetation. The accepted origin of the word is that it derives from Medieval Latin vegetare via Old French vegeter (to vegetate). The classical Latin root is generally given as vegetus (lively or active), although this line of linguistic evolution may be subject to revision as more research on French links to Gaulish comes to light. In any case, the old meaning of “vegetate” did not imply something in decline, a common modern connotation, but rather something that was springing to life, a profusion, a natural bounty expanding from seed almost to the extent that it could be heard rustling as it grew—the complete opposite of the gardens of Adonis discussed later in this essay. This concept of vegetal fecundity is quite in line with Celtic ideas about food and nature and is especially characteristic in the obvious lack of definition between the cultivated and uncultivated worlds. Thus, in its root meaning, the English word is more all-inclusive than the Mediterranean concepts of holera and horta.

This ambiguity is best exemplified by the vast range of plants that are called vegetables in the English language. Tomatoes are berries, yet they are called vegetables. Garlic is considered a vegetable, yet one does not eat the leaves. And what about rhubarb stems, which are treated like a fruit (the leafy part is poisonous), or the sunflower, which is consumed as a seed or as oil? Where does edible vegetation fit in? Most garden books define vegetables as annuals because they are grown to crop for one season only, yet many of these plants are true biennials (celery, carrots, cabbage, leeks, turnips), and some are even perennial (rhubarb, horseradish, sweet potatoes, asparagus, sorrel, peppers).

Another method for defining vegetables was based on the part of the plant considered most esculent for consumption. Here we have the rather simplistic division of the plant world into root vegetables (such as parsnips), pod vegetables (cowpeas, for example), and leaf vegetables (spinach and chard to name two). Again, while it is easy to imagine carrots as root vegetables, lima beans as pod vegetables, and collards as leaf vegetables, the unending discovery of edible plants from exotic locales such as Africa and South America has challenged all Old World definitions of this classification.

In this category is the East African oyster nut (Telfairia pedata), a rampantly vining cucurbit that is normally planted at the base of trees large enough to support the heavy fruit. In fact, several vines—both male and female—are grown on the same tree and will produce large squash-like fruit for up to twenty years. But it is the seed, not the fruit itself, that is eaten. Once established, the vines are not given much attention. While oyster nuts are intentionally planted around trees conveniently located near dwellings, this is a vegetable crop based more on passive intervention than on formal horticultural practice. This is a pattern once common in hunter-gatherer societies, where certain patches or stands of useful wild plants were periodically tended and encouraged through selective weeding to produce higher yields.

The yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) of South America is similarly outside the norm, for it produces crunchy, sweet-tasting tubers that are eaten like fruit. It has been cultivated in the High Andes for so many centuries and reproduced by root division for such a long time that many varieties can no longer produce fertile seeds. They are utterly dependent on humans for survival. Since it is low in calories, the tuber has been recently reevaluated as a possible diet food.

This continuing botanical revelation has also altered dietary schematics. Old peasant foraged foods like dock have been rediscovered as biodynamic or macrobiotic, synonyms for well-being, longevity, and psychological balance. In this way the vegetable has repeatedly inserted itself into the most radical of lifestyle movements—but this is hardly new, since vegetarianism and the dietary signification of plants has played a key role in philosophical approaches to nutrition since the days of Pythagoras or even since Adam and Eve, the original vegetarians.

Eden was said to be somewhere in ancient Mesopotamia. About the original garden we know little, but the Mesopotamian peoples left vast heaps of cuneiform tablets that reveal detailed information about the vegetable plants they once cultivated. As the climate grew hotter and drier many thousands of years ago, a vivid visual distinction evolved between cultivated and uncultivated ground. In fact, the vegetable gardens of that era were enclosed by walls both as protection from wandering livestock and as a means to contain and define the area where precious water would be distributed. Furthermore, it is clear from most of the records, whether Assyrian, Babylonian, or of any of the other cultures sharing the Fertile Crescent, that vegetables were commonly grown around date palms or fruit trees. The palms filtered the blasting sunlight and gave the garden the appearance of a welcoming grove. Thus the garden was also a place where socialization took place and indeed became a place sanctified by its own gods and protective forces.

Archaeological remains (mostly seeds) from this region also support what is documented in clay tablets. The range of vegetables included many still familiar: cucumbers, chards, gourds, onions, garlics, leeks, melons, chickpeas, lentils, cress, kales, and sesame—both for the seeds and for the oil. Colocynth melons, which resemble small watermelons, were grown primarily for medical applications. Some modern Arabic words, such as kurrat for a type of leek, can be traced to ancient texts from this period, proof of the long continuity of many of these vegetables. Indeed, even the Arab word for vegetables, baql, traces to ancient Aramaic buqul.

Tablet inscriptions also point to another feature of vegetable culture that suggests highly developed horticultural practices: specialization. There are numerous references to the “cucumber place” or to the “garlic place,” which implies that entire beds were devoted to one type of vegetable and that in many cases this was the sole crop raised by the grower. Garlic was especially valued in this respect and even was used as collateral in financial agreements. In texts where a year-to-year continuity can be reconstructed, it is evident that a garlic place may change into a chard place, so some system of crop rotation must have been in effect. This concept of agricultural specialization was thought to have been perfected by the Phoenicians and codified by Mago, whose great work on agriculture (lost in the original Punic) was highly respected by the Romans.

The Phoenicians were also great middlemen in trading vegetables and seeds throughout the Mediterranean. They are thought to have spread the culture of shallots and artichokes well beyond the eastern Mediterranean, and are known to have introduced the intensive cultivation of saffron into North Africa and southern Spain—saffron was primarily a dyestuff and secondarily a ritual herb. Many Punic words for specific vegetable varieties reflected this plant exchange, as, for example, in koussimezar (the Mezar melon or Egyptian “cucumber”), an egg-shaped melon, one of the earliest types to come out of Africa.

Vegetables in Egypt

There is a large body of published material on the history of gardening in ancient and pre-Islamic Egypt, but there are no books per se devoted exclusively to vegetables. Orchards, trees, flora, landscape gardening, and even aquatic plants have received thorough coverage, yet the vegetable stands alone in this curious neglect. Vegetables in general have been viewed as poverty food by most cultures, especially when they form a large portion of peasant diet. Egypt was no different in this regard.

The fine gardens of ancient Egypt were enclosed like those of Mesopotamia and contained trees, flowers, even ponds for fish and ducks. The gardens of the peasants were mostly simple agricultural plots devoted to a specific mix of vegetable crops associated with the local economy, as, for example, lentil or onion growing for absentee landlords in large urban centers like Alexandria. On the other hand, vegetable gardens within temple precincts were often quite elaborate and were intended to supply the priesthood with a full range of food as well as offerings for the deity. Lettuce, for example, was important to the cult of Amun-Min, thus its cultivation held both culinary and religious significance. Indeed, temple gardens were considered to be part of heaven, like the temple itself, so vegetables from those gardens achieved a purity unlike those from the common world.

Papyri and tomb paintings have provided a rich array of material dealing with the common vegetables of the day, although not much is known about their actual preparation as food. The most commonly mentioned vegetables were lentils, leeks, lotus, melons, gourds, garlic, asphodel (grown for its bulb), fava beans, chickpeas, fenugreek (ground as flour), garland chrysanthemum (now popular in Asian cooking), cucumbers, onions, lettuce, and mallow. Egypt also served as a conduit for the introduction of watermelons from tropical Africa and, during the late Ptolemaic Period, for the introduction of rice, taro, and sugar cane from Trapobane (ancient Sri Lanka). Due to their dependence on specialized irrigation and cultivation techniques, none of the last three plants spread beyond the eastern Mediterranean until after Arab conquest.

The Greek occupation of Egypt under the Ptolemys radically altered the Egyptian vegetable garden, both with new introductions and in lasting terminologies. Molókhe or mallow (Malva parviflora), which was once so important to Greek cookery both as a green sauce and as an ingredient in complex recipes, also supplied leaves used like grape leaves for making dolmas. The Egyptians transferred the Greek name to a native wild plant now known as Jews mallow (Corchorus olitorus), which was similarly used in green sauces. It is still called molkhia in Egyptian Arabic. The use of the same name for plants of a different genus or species is one of the lasting ambiguities inherited from the ancients, who were more apt to lump vegetables together according to how they were used, as in the case of the Roman propensity for treating carrots, parsnips, and parsley root as pastinaca.

There are few surviving writings from the Greeks and Romans that do not mention food and vegetables in some manner. It is known from quotes and citations in works like the Deipnosophists of Athenaeus that many books on gardening and agriculture once existed but are now lost. Athenaeus himself lavished considerable attention on foodstuffs, none the least being vegetables. His interests ranged from toasted chickpeas (still a snack food in the Mediterranean) to the medical applications of beets and carrots as vermifuges or a good dish of cabbage to treat a hangover. He even cited the known varieties of lettuce, garlic, fava beans, and many other garden plants in an effort to differentiate which were the best from a connoisseur’s point of view.

The surviving Roman work most easily accessible to the general reader is also by another connoisseur, an eccentric called Apicius, whose detailed recipes give specific hints about the role vegetables played in the haute cuisine of imperial Rome. For example, asparagus was baked in eggy casseroles called patinae, mallow was commonly added to barley soup, celery made a good stuffing for suckling pig, and turnips marry well with baked duck. There is also scattered advice on when to harvest certain vegetables, as in the case of stinging nettles, which only loose their prickly character when cooked or dried.

Many other works could be cited, such as Columella’s On Agriculture and especially Pliny’s monumental Natural History, but the medical writings of the imperial physician Galen are perhaps the richest in detail, since there is considerable commentary on the diet of peasants and farmers and the sorts of vegetables they ate. The aristocratic tone and intended readership of most of the writings that have survived from this period do not provide the kind of firsthand observations one might expect from a true master gardener, although Pliny’s eye was in fact well nuanced to such details—yet some of his botanical “facts” are obviously scrambled and secondhand. And while it is true Columella certainly knew how to run an estate, he was not the vegetable gardener.

Furthermore, aside from comments about asparagus and cabbage, Cato’s treatise On Agriculture makes only passing reference to vegetables—be certain to grow them near cities. While this allusion does confirm the existence of well-organized market gardening, Cato’s treatise is so loaded with ideology about salty Romanness (Romanitas) and the purity of certain rigorous lifestyles that any conclusions drawn from him must be done so with definite reservations. However, it is fairly clear from these and other ancient authors that quite a few cities had developed market gardening to a high degree and even specialized in the cultivation and export of vegetable produce to Rome and other large urban centers.

For example, Cyrene in present-day Libya was well-known in ancient times for its silphium, fragrant saffron, and a mild-tasting tuber now generally identified as taro. It was also the center for the export of the so-called wild artichoke (Cynara cornigera Lindl.), whose domestication was introduced early into Cyprus, Libya, and Carthage from the Levant. This handsome plant is depicted on surviving mosaics in the House of Dionysios at Paphos, Cyprus, and in a mosaic in the Bardo Museum at Tunis. The Roman farmers of Spain and Italy evidently adapted the novel idea of harvesting the flower bud as a delicacy to their local wild cardoons because the artichoke of the western Mediterranean is a subspecies derived genetically from the cardoon (Cynara cardunculus L.), not from a wild artichoke ancestor. Buds of the milk thistle, blessed thistle, and safflower were also similarly harvested and eaten.

The dissemination of the artichoke, or at least of the horticultural technology required to cultivate it for food, brings up the larger question of plant exchange during the height of the Roman Empire. Commerce flowed to and from the far-flung provinces in a manner only replicated by the European Union. Archaeology has indeed confirmed that foodstuffs moved quite easily from one place to another, with such exotics as rice turning up in sites in Germany and England. There is also indisputable evidence that, among the aristocracy at least, country life on the great estates attempted to imitate the court life of imperial Rome. Gardens excavated from villa sites have confirmed this.

On the local level, however, Mediterranean cuisine and Mediterranean vegetables were not readily assimilated among the general populace. Joan Alcock’s study of food in Roman Britain (2001), based on overwhelming archaeological evidence, reached the conclusion that assimilation was selective, and it was this selectivity that gave rise to the regional cookeries that eventually provided a link of continuity with the regional cookeries of the Middle Ages. This is also the growing consensus of archaeologists in other parts of Europe. Thus, the old saw that “the Romans introduced it” must be requalified, especially since quite a number of vegetables were cultivated in some regions long before the Romans arrived. Cabbage, especially the kales, originated in northern Europe, and in fact, the English words for kale and cabbage are Celtic in origin, as are the German words Kabbis and Kohl, not to mention the Latin brassica and caulis. This is evidence in itself that the vegetable exchange during Roman times was complex and two-way, with the Romans themselves learning new things from conquered peoples.

A broader look at Roman literature of all types is especially useful in drawing general conclusions about the state of vegetable gardening from that time. For example, Pliny parodied “gastronomic prodigies,” monster vegetables and fruits valued for their size alone. This would suggest that some market gardeners were well acquainted with horticultural practices based on careful seed selection, cold frame techniques, and the manuring of plants at critical periods of growth, much like the modern-day cult of the monster pumpkin or watermelon. There is also a great deal of information concerning value judgments about the role of vegetables in the diet and their cultural significance. Many Roman satires mention garlic as a food only fit for galley slaves and peasants or as something eaten only by soldiers going off to war (garlic heats up the body and therefore creates a warlike spirit). The general drift is that anything flavored with garlic is therefore rustic and unrefined and as much an antidote to poison as it is to the consuming flames of love (what sweet kiss is not withered by the scorpion sting of garlic breath?). Likewise, fava beans are eaten by jurymen in order to stay awake during trials, their noisy flatulency providing an echoing thunder of divine approval or of legal derision.

The most commonly mentioned vegetables in Roman literary sources include many still known, although in shape and habit they probably did not resemble modern varieties. The list includes turnips, radishes, rocket (arugula to American grocers), leeks, lentils, lettuce, orach, Old World gourds (eaten young like zucchinis), cabbage, onion, peas, chickpeas, fava beans, cucumbers, asparagus, cowpeas, beets, beet chards, sprouting broccoli, watermelon, garlic, mallow, dock, chickling vetch, and blite—otherwise known as purple amaranth (Amaranthus lividus).

A number of scholars have taken the liberty of translating blitum (blite) as spinach (Gowers, 1996), and this has greatly added to the confusion about the culinary history of spinach because blitum is not true spinach. However, something called barbaricum bliteum (barbarian blite) also surfaces in Roman literature. This is either true spinach as cultivated by the Armenians and Persians or else good-king-henry, so important to the ritual cookery of the ancient Gauls—the leaves of both plants are similarly shaped. In any case, this mystery vegetable was considered insipid eating and was equated with crudeness and stupidity (insipid people were people who lacked “flavor”).

Some of these vegetables also carried a great deal of symbolic baggage, especially in connection with religious cults. Mallow (molóche) was considered one of the purest sacrifices for Apollo Genétor at Delos, and Pythagoras himself was said to have lived on it as part of his vegetarian dietary regime because it “washes” the stomach.

Lettuce was associated with the gruesome death of Adonis, the prepubescent lover of Aphrodite, who hid among lettuce before he was gored to death by a wild boar. Thus lettuce was associated with male sterility, effeminacy, and cowardice, and generally was viewed as a suppressant of sexual performance (Detienne, 2000). Gardens of Adonis were planted in pots or baskets during the heat of summer and then allowed to die prematurely on the roofs of houses during the feast of Adonia (19 July during the Roman Empire) as symbolic evidence of the boy’s sexual prowess, which produced no “seed” or fruit. Significantly, these little gardens consisted of barley, wheat, lettuce, and fennel, each plant highly symbolic of some aspect of fertility yet a total inversion of what was understood to be garden abundance.

Interestingly, a distinctive lettuce dedicated to Gauas (the Cypriot Adonis), and later known as “Cyprian” during the Byzantine period, was discovered in a Serbian monastery by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the early twentieth century and is preserved in several American seed banks. It is physically similar to the pointed-leaf lettuce depicted in the medieval Tacuinum Sanitatis (Arano, 1976) of the eleventh-century Syrian Christian physician Ibn Botlân. By virtue of this continuity, at least in form and appearance, Cyprian lettuce is a true heirloom variety, a category of vegetable that will be dealt with later in this discussion.

Vegetables in the Early Christian Period

The early Middle Ages is a murky period for the study of vegetables, but a copy (in the Austrian State Library at Vienna) of the Codex of Dioskorides dating from 500 to 511 C.E. is illuminated with pictures of plants. The drawings are fairly accurate and convey the important physical characteristics of the vegetables and herbs shown. Thus it is possible to determine that a leek on folio 278 belongs to the Kurrat Group, an ancient type of salad leek mentioned earlier and still grown in the Near East.

The Codex of Dioskorides is medical in nature, dealing with the health and dietary aspects of the plants discussed. For a horticultural companion, the Gheoponika of Kassianos Bassos, a tenth-century reworking of several older agricultural treatises, provides rules for the cultivation of garden vegetables, thus offering some insights into the seasonal food cycle, both horticultural and culinary, in the old Byzantine East. More specifically, the role of the Gheoponika in the provisioning of Constantinople with fresh vegetables has been studied by several historians, most importantly by Johannes Koder (1993). When taken together with the Book of the Eparch (prefect of Constantinople) regulating merchants and guilds during the reign of Leo VI (886–912), a relatively detailed picture of market gardening falls into place. It is perhaps significant to note that by the 1100s many villages in Bulgaria were given imperial privileges that freed them of military duty in exchange for producing food for the court. It is for this reason that the Bulgarians have long been called the gardeners of the Balkans, a status they maintained even under later Ottoman rule.

In the West, the eighth century Capitulare de villis of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne is quite valuable for its references to gardens. For example, the ravocaulos of that document is believed to refer to a variety of kohlrabi. However, the most priceless garden record is a parchment drawing of the garden plan of the Cloister of St. Gall in Switzerland surviving from the early 800s. It provides a detailed look at how the Roman kitchen garden became transmogrified into a source of both food and medical plants. Sixteen plants are discernible on the plan, including cucumbers, melons, cowpeas, bottle gourds, and smallage (celery resembling parsley). Most important, they are organized into rectangular raised beds. This is one of the earliest references extant to this common garden practice, but it was not unique.

The Hortulus of Walahfrid Strabo, abbot (from 838 to 849) of the Cloister of Reichenau on an island in Lake Constance, makes reference to a similar number of plants, again arranged in raised rectangular beds. Strabo‘s Latin poems about his garden discuss the uses of both herbs and vegetables and is the oldest surviving source on gardening written in Europe during the Middle Ages. Most interesting of all, archaeological exploration of the abbey site has revealed that it was constructed from the recycled ruins of an abandoned Roman villa and that the layout of the garden more or less followed the outlines of the ancient one. The implication is that the Roman gardening tradition maintained by the wealthy during imperial times did not fully disappear at the outset of the Middle Ages. Many estate gardens disappeared completely due to wars and pillaging, but in some regions they simply became fewer in number and passed into non-Roman hands (Percival, 1976). Château Ausone near Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux is a famous example of this continuity, although its fame rests on wine not gardens.

The archaeological link is not as clear when it comes to the vegetables themselves, since botanical residues, especially seeds, impose certain limitations on what can be retrieved for science. A carrot seed is indistinguishable from a wild carrot seed and will not tell how the root was shaped or even its color. Unfortunately, seeds are mostly what one has to work with from medieval sites, although some inferences can be revealing. Cucumber seeds show up in Polish sites in the 900s, thus establishing a bottom line for a vegetable much associated with Polish national cookery. Carbonized fava bean plants from North Germany from the same period reveal that, after the beans were harvested (as winter fare), the plants were used as straw in barns. Seeds, however, do help untangle dates of introduction, and one thing that scholars have learned from medieval archaeology is that the vegetable world was not static, as historians have led us to believe in the past.

The broad, flat fava bean, which is the preferred sort for modern cookery, did not appear until the 800s in Spain. This is only one example of vegetable breeding (probably through highly controlled selection) that took place during the Middle Ages, although innovation was indeed slow by present-day standards. Some agricultural historians have suggested that it was the Arabs who created these new types of vegetables—the cauliflower, for example. What can be documented from surviving Arab literary sources is rapid dissemination, but the westward movement of plants in general and vegetables in particular was far more complex than hitherto presumed and remains an area of research ripe for future exploration.

Vegetables and the Arab Diaspora

The agricultural historian Andrew Watson has long promoted the idea that an agricultural revolution took place under early Islamic rule in the eastern Mediterranean, a revolution that was carried westward into North Africa and Spain (Watson, 1983). This has important implications for the movement of vegetable plants. However, other scholarship has questioned this thesis. There is growing evidence that the revolution was already taking place during the late Byzantine period and that it consisted of newer ways of irrigating land and reclaiming marshes so more intensive forms of agriculture could be undertaken. Without entering the question of who invented what, two critical points are undeniable: the technology came out of Persia and South India (the vast irrigation systems in Sri Lanka were well known even to the Greeks), and its spread westward was made possible by the political stability that Arab conquest brought to the regions under its control. It is easy to point to the concentration of wealth in bright spots such as Syria (Damascus and Baghdad in particular), Egypt, and al-Andalus in Spain, but there was an economic implosion in other parts of the newly formed empire. The family papers of the Ibn’Awkal merchants of eleventh-century Egypt reveal a great deal about industrial crops like Egyptian flax or high-profit goods like black pepper, indigo, and sal ammoniac, but information on common garden vegetables is rather limited. That is, unless one looks at medical literature and cookery books.

The most heavily used culinary source is also one of the oldest: the Kitab al-tabikh, otherwise known as the Baghdad cookery book. It was written down in 1226, although internal evidence clearly indicates that the material was compiled from several much earlier sources, some of which were not Arabic. This ambiguity is one of the difficulties in using cookbooks to pinpoint the introduction of new vegetables. But that said, there are other Arabic cookery manuscripts equally rich in detail surviving from the Middle Ages, such as the Manuscrito Anónimo of Moorish Spain, and all of the recipes no matter what the source are fairly clear about the role vegetables played in the diet of the times.

There is certainly no ambiguity in the Baghdad cookery book about the use of eggplants and no doubt at all that the sort discussed had dark black skin (there are directions for removing it). The book also makes ample reference to fava beans, cardoons, rhubarb, leeks, the ridged cucumber (Armenian snake melon), carrots, gourds, taro, cultivated purslane, turnips, sweet fennel, and spinach. There are also references to a form of cabbage commonly translated into English as cauliflower. Without a picture, one cannot be sure (it could be a type of broccoli), but since true cauliflower evidently evolved in the Dead Cities region of northwestern Syria, it is quite likely that this luxury vegetable migrated during the early 800s with its growers when they resettled elsewhere—a small group of those Syrian Christians emigrated to the Karpasia district of Cyprus, where cauliflower was first observed by pilgrims to the Holy Land later in the Middle Ages. The cauliflower is not mentioned in European scientific works until specimens are discussed by Dodonaeus in 1560. By that time Cypriot seed was being exported to northern Europe via Venice.

One is also treated with a rich array of vegetables in another work called Kitab Wasf al-At’ima al-Mu’tada (Description of Familiar Foods) written in 1373. Of particular interest is the differentiation of several types of leeks, indicating not only distinct varieties but also distinct culinary uses at different stages of development—indirect evidence of a highly evolved sense of market gardening. Four sorts of leek are mentioned: the vegetable leek (kurrath baql), the Nabatean leek, the table leek, and the Syrian leek. The first is not a variety but rather a spring leek, young greens similar in character to Chinese garlic chives. The Nabatean leek may be equated with the modern salad leek of Iraq, a member of the Kurrat Group, short in height and rather deep-rooted. The table leek is a blanched leek similar to the Catalan Calçot onion, and indeed the cultural technique of burying them in deep trenches may be the same. The Syrian leek is the kephalotón of medieval Cyprus, a Greek word derived from Syrian quaflot, a leek with an unusually large bulb. This plant is the genetic ancestor of the modern elephant garlic. Under the name Porrum Syriacum, it was first illustrated in European botanical literature by Tabernaemontanus in 1588.

Arab books dealing with cookery exhibit an undeniable passion for elegant preparations, even with simple vegetables. But such food was the privilege of the aristocratic few, and the wealth that sustained that lifestyle was soon to fade with the economic upheavals caused by the Crusades. Until the late twentieth century, historians have greatly underestimated the exchanges that took place after the establishment of Latin footholds in the Levant and Byzantium or the role of large Christian minorities that persisted in Egypt and Syria during the early Muslim period.

The Nestorian or East Syrian Church, which spread into Persia, established strong trading communities in China and Malabar as well as in Cyprus, where the Nestorian Lakhan family became extremely powerful based on trade in medical aloes. One line of trade and plant exchange went through Tabriz in Persia overland to the Caucasian kingdom of Georgia and the Greek Empire of Trebizond on the north coast of modern Turkey, all to circumvent the Arabs. That this Black Sea entry was an important route for the movement of Asian food plants westward may be inferred from an eleventh-century Byzantine reference to the “citrons” of Anatolia, a variety of lemon introduced via Georgia and Armenia and still preserved in Georgian botanical collections. Eggplants also followed this route.

European contact with foods of the Arab world was not limited to the crusading troops that went to the Holy Land and returned. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099–1291), the Principality of Achaea (1205–1430), a French feudal state established in Greece with its capital at Mistra, a Catalan principality centered on Athens, various Venetian and Genovese ports, and the sister kingdoms of Cilicia (1080–1375) in Asia Minor and on Cyprus (1192–1489) were all characterized by colonial aristocracies with highly orientalized foodways.

The last kingdoms, especially that of Cyprus due to a Papal Bull, served as conduits for the spice trade with the Muslim world. In the case of Cyprus, the kingdom lent its name to an international style of cookery mentioned in numerous medieval cookbooks. More important, the intermarriage of wealthy Latins in the Levant with European nobility, particularly with families in Aragon and in northern Italy, brought to Europe a constant influx of personal cooks, gardeners, and retainers schooled in eastern Mediterranean ways. It is not surprising that some of the earliest references to exotic vegetables like eggplants, cauliflowers, okra, and numerous sorts of Near Eastern melons show up in late medieval Italy.

The Carrara Herbal (British Library, Egerton MS 2020), created sometime before 1403, was one of the first late medieval herbals to depict plants and vegetables accurately, although it may have been based on a now lost Byzantine prototype. Such illustrated handbooks of health, as well as numerous herbals, offer a rich visual record of the sorts of vegetables deemed worthy for the table in that period. The beautiful gardens witnessed by travelers through the Latin East were now replicated in Italy but with the goal for reattaining a glorious Roman past. The Italian pleasure gardens of this period so impressed Casimir the Great of Poland that he installed one in Cracow during the 1360s, complete with cold frames for forcing Mediterranean vegetables. In short, the vegetable garden once again becomes an object of status.

The discovery of printing, followed quickly by the discovery of the New World and the heady harvest of its vegetable riches, only accelerated a quest for new and exotic things to ornament the gardens of the rich and powerful. Tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, sunflowers, beans, sweet potatoes, new sorts of pumpkins, and a new kind of wheat called maize fill the pages of botanical treatises and plant books of the period. The 1500s may be characterized as a century during which botanists attempted to organize the vegetable world into some type of scientific order, although that “order” by modern standards was quite chaotic. For example, a confusing observation is that the Jerusalem artichoke from North America (not from Jerusalem and not an artichoke) is known as Flos solis Farnesianus (Farnese sunflower) in reference to the fact that the gardens at the Villa Farnese in Rome provided several botanists with the first known specimens. Sorting out such conflicting nomenclature has plagued garden historians ever since.

However, botanical gardens were established in this century, the first in 1545 at the University of Padua, and some of the greatest botanical works of the Renaissance were issued during this era, especially those devoted to cataloging the gardens of such important plantsmen as Conrad Gesner in Switzerland (1561), Georg Fabricius in Meissen, Germany (1569), and Camerarius in Nürnberg (1588). All of these books contain valuable woodcuts depicting vegetables, and many medieval favorites like skirret (Sium sisarum) and monk’s rhubarb (Rumex patientia) are shown for the first time. Vegetables also figured prominently in Renaissance art and paintings, especially the still life genre. Among the most whimsical vegetable compositions are those by the court painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c. 1527–1593), who used vegetables and fruits to create faces and other conceits.

The most significant body of literature, however, was the garden guides that discussed not only specific vegetable varieties but also how to grow them. The French work known as L’agriculture ou la maison rustique, first published in Latin (1535) by the Paris printer Charles Estienne, was soon translated into most major European languages. Marco Bussato’s Giardino di agricultura (Venice, 1592) was also extremely influential, as was Johann Coler’s Oeconomica ruralis et domestica (Wittenberg, 1597). The great classic, however, was Oliver de Serre’s Théatre d’agriculture (Rouen, 1600), which became a standard garden book for much of the next century. This great outpouring of garden knowledge was capped in many ways by the lavishly illustrated Hortus Eystettensis assembled by Basilius Besler in 1613 for his patron plant collector, the bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria. Not only did the good bishop own prize specimens of rare eggplants, balsam apple (Momordica balsamina), tomatoes, and domesticated asparagus, his potted prickly pear cactus from the New World required a wooden superstructure to hold the monster plant in place.

Vegetables in the Baroque Period

The seventeenth century witnessed a revolution in botanical science and the proliferation of books devoted to illustrating plants and vegetables from many parts of the world, including new introductions from Asia and the Americas. Francisco Hernandez’s Nova Plantarum (Rome, 1651) was devoted almost exclusively to the foods of Mexico and included native names for the plants. His woodcut illustrations offer a priceless look at the characteristics of common vegetables then grown in New Spain, including the lowly miltomatl or tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa) now popular in Southwest American cooking. Other books containing strange designations like Pomum amoris majus fructu luteo (large yellow fruited love apple or, more simply, yellow tomato) remind one how much lack of order prevailed in the scientific naming of newly discovered vegetables and how much has changed since Linneaus imposed order on the world of plants in the eighteenth century. Names like bamia Aegypitiaca (Egyptian okra—bamya is actually a Syrian word) of one author might become “ladies’ fingers” of the next. Likewise the lactuca hispanica (Spanish lettuce) of one author was the Cos or Roman lettuce of another, the names more often than not reflecting the source of seed rather than the true origin and history of the vegetable. One of the most fashionable cabbages of the period was the so-called Brassica tophosa, better known as black Tuscan palm tree kale, “rediscovered” by American seedspeople under the new moniker “dinosaur kale.” The penchant for fanciful names has not changed.

If a generalization can be made about the seventeenth century, it is that the rare and exotic vegetable of the previous century gradually became the daily fare of the urban middle class by 1700. Plant breeding, especially in Holland, brought many new sorts of vegetables onto the market. Named varieties of potatoes, carrots, celery, chicory, peas, and turnips soon proliferated in kinds and colors. Added to this roster were newly discovered Asian foods, like Malabar spinach (Basella alba), introduced from Java in 1688. Handbooks on plant breeding were even published, one of the earliest in English being Walter Sharrock’s History of the Propagation and Improvement of Vegetables (1660). From this time on, the vegetable undergoes a steady refinement with emphasis on greater delicacy of flavor, more beautiful shape, and increasing tenderness.

Much of this was directly connected with shifts taking place in cookery, especially the use of vegetables in sauces and elaborately prepared dishes. Vegetables were also given ornamental value with paring knives, so turnips feathered out into birds, carrots unwound into golden fish, and the cookbooks of the day are full of illustrations showing how to do this. Most notably, however, the vegetable became a prized market commodity; growing of vegetables, a respectable line of work for the honest laborer; and period depictions of market scenes never fail to convey the impression that only the best has been laid before the eye.

Aside from shifts in cookery, the virtues of country life and the pursuit of its simple pleasures helped elevate vegetable gardening as a worthy and genteel pastime. Jan van der Groen’s Den Nederlandtsen Hovenier (Amsterdam, 1669) was extremely influential in this respect, as were Nicolas de Bonnefon’s Les delices de la campagne and Le jardinier françois in France. All of these works were translated into several languages and included specific discussions of vegetable varieties and cooking tips. Under fava beans, for example, Bonnefon recommended several different methods of preparation, including fricassees like peas or boiled plain with slices of bacon, noting that fresh green savory went “marvelously well” with any fava bean dish.

Not the least important, from the standpoint of vegetables, was John Evelyn‘s Acetaria: A Discourse on Sallets (London, 1699), which discussed most of the popular types of vegetables of the day, especially ways to employ them raw or semicooked in salads. Of earth chestnuts (Bunium bulbocastanum) he remarked: “the Rind par’d off, [they] are eaten crude by Rustics, with a little Pepper; but are best when boil’d like other Roots, or in Pottage rather, and are sweet and nourishing.”

The idea that vegetables recaptured the original wholesomeness of Eden became an underlying theme for many of the more offbeat cookbooks of the eighteenth century, with Adam’s Luxury and Eve’s Cookery (London, 1744) considered one of the most typical. The underlying philosophies expressed in these books may be said to represent the intellectual forerunners of true vegetarianism, which was indeed practiced in colonial North America by the so-called White Friends, a group of Quakers who wore clothing of unbleached cloth. The most highly organized vegetarians in early North America, however, were the Bible Christians, who expanded from England in 1816. Martha Brotherton’s Vegetable Cookery (London, 1833) became the dietary handbook for this group.

The European penchant for country life was quickly transferred to England during the 1600s and from there to colonial America. Doubtless it achieved its American apotheosis in such famous estates as William Penn‘s “Pennsbury Manor” along the Delaware River, Thomas Jefferson‘s “Monticello” in Virginia, William Hamilton‘s “Woodlands” near Philadelphia, and Charles Carroll’s “Mount Clare” in Baltimore. Jefferson’s personal garden account book, published by the American Philosophical Society in 1944, remains a lasting testimony to the central role that kitchen gardens—and vegetables in particular—played in this manorial lifestyle.

It was on such estates as these that many of the Old World exotics were first introduced to North America. Charles Norris of Philadelphia, for example, is known to have raised black-skinned eggplants, since a letter survives from 1763 imploring him for seed. Many of the most popular vegetables of this period can be found in Philip Miller’s Gardener’s and Botanist’s Dictionary (London, 1759), and remarkable as it may seem, some of Miller’s vegetables are extant, among them red celery, Spotted Aleppo and Silesia lettuces, spinach beets, and domesticated sea kale.

The Vegetable in the Nineteenth Century

The Industrial Revolution in England and Europe created the need for a new type of gardener and, indeed, new sorts of vegetable varieties. Market gardening had always existed to some extent in and around urban centers, but the huge new concentration of landless workers packed into the cities meant someone else would have to act as a surrogate kitchen gardener to supply their tables. Thus vegetable horticulture underwent rapid specialization with growers focusing on such basic food crops as cabbages and onions, or turnips and potatoes.

New demands were placed on vegetable breeders for vegetables that would travel well and that gave a good appearance even after rough handling. The old-time requirements of the country kitchen gardener for vegetables that dried or pickled well were overthrown by cold frame and hot-house horticulture that could deliver such tender things as fresh peas and lettuce all winter. Furthermore, most of the old medieval vegetables like skirrets, rampion, orach, sow thistle, and nettles dropped out of mainstream diet and by the mid-nineteenth century were largely associated with rural poverty, those “rustics” mentioned by Evelyn in his treatise on salads. So thorough has industrialization distanced the consumer from the horta of old traditional northern European diet that the wild greens of Mediterranean culture, indeed any unusual food plants from Asia or Africa, are embraced as an antidote to a diet adrift of its “natural soul.”

The two bibles of nineteenth-century American kitchen gardening are arguably Bernard M’Mahon’s American Gardener’s Calendar (Philadelphia, 1806) and Fearing Burr’s Field and Garden Vegetables of America (Boston, 1863). Both of these works were reprinted in the twentieth century because they contain long, valuable lists and detailed descriptions of many nineteenth-century vegetables. Burr even included small woodcut illustrations. M’Mahon’s book is a cultural bridge with the past, for it contains much on the old types of vegetables still eaten by traditionalists of his day. His is also a book written for the person who gardens, in particular a person who employs a staff, thus his vegetables fall into that category of food destined for genteel tables. Fearing Burr’s book was quite another sort.

Burr’s primary interest was to catalog the best commercially available vegetable varieties so gentlemen farmers and market gardeners would be guided in their selection of the best seed for the best investment. The book was arranged like a scholarly encyclopedia, and it was not cheap, two points against it from a farmer’s standpoint. Its New England stodginess was quickly overtaken by Peter Henderson’s Gardening for Profit (New York, 1865), an inexpensive handbook that became a best seller and the blueprint for true truck farming. Henderson was a seedsman, and he was not blind to the fact that small-scale farming for urban markets would require yet another type of vegetable; indeed, his book marks the birth of the so-called commercial vegetable grower.

Henderson’s effect on vegetable breeding was immediate, and nowhere in the United States did it manifest itself more than in the explosion of newfangled high-profit tomatoes. The Paragon tomato was introduced in 1870 along with the canning jar of the same name—the connection was not coincidental. The leading tomato breeder of the time was Alexander Livingston (1822–1898) of Ohio. His Acme tomato (1875), Golden Queen (1882), Beauty (1885), and Stone (1891) are still grown and are considered among the classics of American commercial garden vegetables. But Livingston was only one of a number of seedspeople actively engaged in creating newer and better vegetables for the market. Perhaps the dean of them all was W. Atlee Burpee of Philadelphia, who even went so far as to offer large monetary rewards for backyard discoveries worthy of commercialization. Many of Burpee’s best vegetable introductions came from housewives and farmers who happened to have an eye for the unusual, of which the Montreal Market Melon is a prime example. Burpee’s sense of marketing was also shrewdly sophisticated, because he hired Sarah Tyson Rohrer, owner of the Philadelphia Cooking School, to create a cookbook called How to Cook Vegetables (Philadelphia, 1891), thus insuring that even the most helpless beginner would feel confident in buying his seeds. After all, they received the cookbook as a bonus.

The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed a large increase in the number of vegetables developed solely for manufacturing purposes not only in the United States but in Europe as well. In France, the tiny cornichon pickles were introduced in the 1880s. In England, the Marrowfat pea became the ubiquitous pea of the canneries, both as a canned vegetable and as pea soup. Whole communities grew up around the production of one vegetable. In Germany, Zittau became famous for its monster onions and Tetlow for its dwarf turnips; Poitou in France became famous for its golden leeks. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at Znaim in what is now the Czech Republic, a pickling industry was established in 1852 based entirely on the Znaim cucumber, a mutation of a cucumber brought from Asia in 1802. This pickle capital of central Europe remained in business until 1945, when it collapsed under ethnic cleansing. Today the Znaim cucumber is extinct.

The need for fresh breeding stock to supply growers with newer and better varieties of plants lay behind the establishment of several experimental gardens in the late 1800s. The most famous was at Crosnes (Seine-et-Oise) in France, a place-name now attached to a tuberous vegetable (Stachys affinis) from China first trialed there in the 1880s. The heads of that garden were Auguste Paillieux (1812–1898) and his assistant Désiré Bois. The two of them coauthored a garden classic known as Le Potager d’un curieux (Paris, 1885), and Bois later published his own masterwork, Les Plantes alimentaires (Paris, 1927). These men were responsible for a large number of new vegetable introductions, and they were interested as well in their histories. They valued the research of such botanists as Emilii Bretschneider, whose history of plant exploration in China (1898) remains one of the milestones of nineteenth-century horticultural writing. They were also keenly aware of the value of biodiversity.

The greatest collector of vegetables and edible plants in general specifically for their genetic interest was Nikolai Vavilov (1887–1943) of Russia. The Vavilov Institute, founded at St. Petersburg in 1905, became a model for similar gene banks established in other countries, including the United States. Vavilov’s collections gathered from all parts of the world are considered priceless, and they have taken on much greater importance since the development of hybrids and genetically engineered foods.

In the past the hybrid vegetable was viewed as a worthless mule, and most growers disdained them because they were not fixed in their characteristics, thus they would not grow true from seed. A revolution took place in this thinking during the 1940s as seed companies began to promote the benefits of controlled crosses to yield vegetables with specific traits. Such plants are known as F1 hybrids, the label standing for “first generation.” This concept has further evolved with the idea that the precise genetic mix to create that plant may be patented and thus owned in perpetuity. Genetic engineering has added one more element to the mix: traits borrowed from near species or from other life-forms to create vegetables that would not have occurred in nature. This type of vegetable dominates agribusiness, but it has also come under attack from many quarters under the moniker of “Frankenfood” (a word combination of “Frankenstein” and “food”).

The primary argument against the hybrids is that, since seed cannot be saved, growers are forced to purchase new seed each year. For large-scale farmers, this increases the debt side of the ledger at the cost of seed-saving convenience. Another argument is that hybrids on the whole lack the same vigor as open-pollinated plants, that there is some long-term genetic decline at play. The patented vegetable has been criticized on moral grounds (who owns Nature?) and because it is easy to circumvent the patent by creating renegade varieties with slightly different genetic compositions. Furthermore, the ownership issue resembles the sort of complex economics of old tithes and quitrents that eventually changed medieval agriculture from a tenant system to serfdom. This New Feudalism is based not on class privilege but on farms mortgaged to banks, fertilizer companies, and seed suppliers.

While the pros and cons of these arguments are primarily limited to the farming side of the equation, it is an issue that ultimately affects the consumer and the price of vegetables on the shelf. These issues are also more polarized in developed countries like the United States than in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, where small-scale farming is the norm, and the economics of farming are different and are not necessarily based on cash flow or cash crops. However, the financial success of hybrids, patented varieties, and genetically engineered food is predicated on cheap oil for transportation, not to mention the chemical by-products of oil translated into herbicides and pesticides required to maintain these specialized vegetable crops. Oil, not politics or environmentalism, may ultimately determine the future of such vegetables. But there is also another revolution taking place. It is known as artisanal agriculture, its technology is increasingly organic, and it is based on open-pollinated vegetables, many of which are also heirloom varieties.

The Heirloom Vegetable and the Ten-Acre Farm

The discovery of vitamins and the role they play in human nutrition raised the status of the vegetable from an adjunct to the meal to a much more centralized role. When it became clear that legumes could deliver much of the same nutritional value as meat, a new look at all sorts of vegetables seemed to be in order. On hindsight, the appearance of Eleanour Sinclair Rohde’s Uncommon Vegetables (London, 1946) and John Organ’s Rare Vegetables (London, 1960) should have served as warnings that a shift was taking place in the food world and that this shift was the harbinger of something new. Several elements appear to have converged and to have begun working in conjunction with one another.

The first was a general setting of rapid economic growth, especially in the 1980s, and the flow of some of this new-made wealth into dining out. The second was the mainstreaming of vegetarianism and more broadly of healthy lifestyles, which placed new demands on the market (and on restaurants) to come up with a more challenging and nutritionally satisfying range of vegetable choices, although not necessarily inexpensive choices. The third was the American Bicentennial in 1976, which spawned a renewed look at historical foods and foodways and which gave rise to a number of grassroots organizations devoted to studying and preserving foods of the past. The most important plant organization, and one with enormous continuing influence, is Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, the high temple of what is known as the heirloom vegetable.

The fourth and perhaps the most significant development was the growth of small or artisanal farms devoted to supplying high-end urban markets with the vegetables demanded for a new American cuisine variously styled California cuisine and championed by such activist restaurants as Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and the White Dog Café in Philadelphia. The core concept of California cuisine was the use of locally grown food products with an emphasis on freshness, originality, and organic horticultural methods. This type of model could be replicated anywhere in the country, and thus a real interest in heirloom vegetables was born.

The heirloom vegetable is a variety that has been handed down from the past. It may be an old commercial variety like Conover’s Colossal Asparagus (1863), a garden classic like Victoria Rhubarb (1837), or a symbol of American gardening genius like the Brandywine tomato (1889). Whatever their role, these are plants that have been preserved more or less intact since they were developed. Their historical and cultural genealogies may be impressive, and this alone appeals to many people who sense a loss of cultural identity and who are looking for a means to recover their “natural souls.” Native American heirlooms are extremely potent in this regard.

From an economic standpoint, the heirloom vegetable is free of the ownership issues inherent in hybrid, patented, and genetically engineered food. The heirloom belongs to the community, and an exchange of this food (as well as its seeds) is viewed as a strong link in the commensality of people and a link with nature, especially since the plants are pollinated by natural means out under the sky. On a less philosophical level, heirloom vegetables were developed to meet the agricultural needs of specific soils and environments and therefore do not require the same economic investment in fertilizers and insecticides as hybrid varieties. They are also strengthened by an inherent genetic diversity lacking in hybrid sorts—a built-in mechanism to prevent massive crop failure. This appeals to organic growers, and the surprisingly rich flavors of plants raised in this manner have gained many converts in the food community at large. Politically, the heirloom vegetable represents an alternative to the type of market control and genetic expropriation associated with agribusiness. In developing countries, this means local control of local food resources, a theme championed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

When the astronauts first set foot on the moon, they looked back to behold a blue orb in the darkness of space. That view changed humanity, because it said as no words could express that Earth is indeed an Eden and perhaps, for all its vicissitudes, our only reward. The philosophies that have guided us in the past are seriously challenged. While it is true that vegetables are not perceived by humans to react to pain, fear, or anxiety and while they do not have red blood, who is to say they are not our protectors?

See also Cannibalism ; Gardening and Kitchen Gardens ; Genetic Engineering ; Legumes ; Maize ; Onions and Other Allium Plants ; Organic Farming and Gardening ; Peas ; Pythagoras ; Tubers ; Vegetarianism ; Vitamins .


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William Woys Weaver


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