Vegetables and herbs rooted in history

In this super technical world of gadgets that make daily chores easier, tell time (as well as tell you when to stand or when to take a deep breath) and driverless cars, the softer world of myths and fantasies seems to disappear. Maybe we view ourselves as being too old or too practical to indulge in some mindless reading.

Look at it this way: It diverts our minds, slows down the frantic pace we can fall into during the holiday season and, if nothing else, offers some conversation starters at a dull party. Admittedly, you’d have to come up with a clever lead-in sentence. Starting out with “Did you know?” won’t capture your audience.

A favorite book on my bookshelf is “Garden Facts and Fancies” by Alfred Carl Hottes, published in 1949, which is always a pleasure to thumb through on a chilly day.

Fresh homegrown vegetables are a delight to grow and eat, but they don’t offer much along the lines of poetic writings. You won’t find lyrical poems or sonnets written about radishes or spinach, but they do have their stories to tell.

Radishes aren’t big news-makers and the development of new varieties never garners the followers that new tomato varieties do. Some gardeners consider the only purpose of a radish is to mark the rows of carrots with their quick sprouting tufts of green.

Pliny the Elder, Roman author and naturalist, had his own thoughts that radishes were not meant for a gentleman’s table because they “provoke a man that eateth them to belch.” Somewhere in history radishes were elevated to the breakfast table. They were eaten as an eye-opener, dipped in salt and munched before any other food.

We think of roasted vegetables as being a fairly recent epicurean delight. Not so, according to Pliny, who wrote that if one eats a roasted beet, it will take away the bad breath from eating garlic. Beets were reputed to be good as a compress to cure hydrophobia. It was believed that beets were also good for snake bites, cancer and inward sores.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that you can steal parsley but never accept it as a gift. Parsley was used at parties in Rome as it “rendered the fumes of wine innocuous.”

And when in love, don’t cut parsley (no reason given).

Have you heard of Peascod wooing? If a maid finds a pod with nine peas in it, she places it on the doorstep of the kitchen. The first man to cross over it will be her future lover.

Water boiled from peas was considered good for measles.

Herbalist John Gerade, writing in the 1590s, didn’t give much credit to spinach. He wrote, “It yieldeth little or no nourishment at all.”

The preferred method of cooking spinach hasn’t changed much in over 300 years. The Dutch placed spinach in a pot “without any moisture than its owne, and after the moisture is a trifle pressed from it, they put butter and a little spice unto it and make thereof a dish that many delight to eate of.”

That’s exactly how it was prepared growing up in Wisconsin but with a splash of vinegar and a garnish of sliced hardboiled eggs.

Gerade also had advice on eating lettuce. “Eaten after supper it keepeth away drunkenness which cometh from wine, but being taken before meate it doth many times stir up the appetite.” The Saxons called it Sleepwort because it encourages sleep.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include tales about my favorite summer eats — tomatoes in all shapes and colors.

Again, Gerade was very vocal on tomatoes, which he considered “the whole plant to be of ranke and stinking savour” — the fruit was corrupt, which he left to every man’s censure.

Many tags have been given to the tomato. The German folklore is associated with the werewolf legends that believe the “deadly nightshade” was used by witches and sorcerers in potions to transform themselves into werewolves — hence the tag of “wolf peach.”

“Poison apple” is another tag. It was thought that aristocrats got sick and died after eating them, but the truth was that wealthy Europeans used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. The high acidity of the tomato when placed on a pewter plate would leach lead from the plate, resulting in death from lead poisoning.

Word of the tomato spread slowly in the newly settled American colonies along with plenty of myths and questions from farmers. By 1822 hundreds of tomato recipes appeared in local periodicals and newspapers, but fears and rumors of the potential poison still lingered. Just as the populace was becoming comfortable with using the tomato, in about 1830, a new concern emerged. The Green Tomato Worm, measuring 3 to 4 inches in length with a horn sticking out of its back. In an 1867 publication, it was believed that a mere brush with such a worm could result in death.

Even Ralph Waldo Emerson feared the presence of the tomato-loving worm. They were “an object of much terror, it being currently regarded as poisonous and imparting a poisonous quality to the fruit if it should chance to crawl upon it.”

The fears finally subsided, and by 1897, innovator Joseph Campbell figured out that tomatoes keep well when canned and popularized condensed tomato soup.

I guess we can say, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”

— Reporter:

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