… until it is….
Vegetables and organ meats share a split personality in the 17th century. On the one hand, they’re dainty morsels, served with verve and flair on the noblest of tables; on the other hand, they’re the bits that are left to serve the poorest of the poor. Let’s save offal for another day – there’s a great haggis controversy bubbling up in food history circles…I’ll keep you posted. But back to vegetables.
I’m sure you all remember back to the third grade when you learned that the natural world is dividedinto animal, mineral and vegetable. And that’s exactly what a vegetable is in the 17th century – that whole large category of trees and vines and shrubs and grains and shrubs and reeds and cetera – not just the plants you grow for your plate.
If you grow it in your garden, particularly your kitchen garden, then it’s an herb. Cabbage is an herb. Carrot is an herb. Rosemary and rue are herbs. Parsley, sage, thyme – herbs. Turnip, asparagus, skirret – also herbs. There are sun-categories of herbs, often overlapping: pot herbs, sweet herbs, physic herbs, herbs for strewing, and of course, salad herbs.
Salads are made of herbs. Like so much else in the 17th century, there is a hierarchy of herbs, too. Cabbages, kales and coleworts (we know then as collards) – common, definitely food of the poor. Easy to grow, easy to keep, good for a long time in the garden, keep well after they harvested. Cabbages are also considered to be ‘windy’ – Nickolas Culpepper compares them to bagpipes and bellows…not dainty, even then! Garlic is considered to be ‘poor man’s treacle’ – good for whatever ails the poor. It’s also generally assumed that the poorer sorts are doing more physical labor, and therefore have more heat, hotter digestion, or decoction of their food. (That’s Doctrine of Humours in 25 words or less!)
Asparagus, artichokes, broom buds, sapphire, purslane (not the nasty garden weed – proper garden purslane), cowslips, gillyflowers are all dainties. Beancods – plain ole green beans to us now – dainty. Potatoes are a dainty – that’s gonna change, but not until the 18th century.
Lettuce is a salad herb, too, just not necessarily the first thing you think of for salad. It seems to travel back and forth between the dainty and the common. Just like now. Think of the difference between iceberg lettuce and baby Bibb. There are other leafy greens betwixt and between dainty and common. Arugula, known as rocket to 17th century Englishmen (and hence, rocket salad), spinach, endive, beets… If the technology is working for me today, (Buddy, I’m counting on you for backup!) there is a lovely image of a second year beet. But, wait a minute, aren’t beets red things that grow underground – this are large and green and waving in the breeze – and what’s with this second year business?
Side-bar on beets: what we now call Swiss chard is the beet of the 17th. What we now call beets is the beet root, or Red Roman beetroot of the 17th century. How did it become Swiss? I haven’t a clue, but it doesn’t happen until the 19th century. As for the chard part – that comes from the rib in the center of the leaf, which harkens back to the card in the cardoon….Why hasn’t anyone written the Secret Life of Beets? Perhaps in my copious free time….Beets form seed in their second year, so you have to hold a few through the winter to get more beet seeds.
Salads are usually boiled. Eating raw plants was sometimes fashionable, was sometimes distained. Generally, cooking food made it more artificial, which is a good thing in the 17th century because then it is improved by the hand of man. Cooked food was also supposed to better for your digestion.
So if boiled green beans or spinach or endive or Swiss chard have ever turned up on your table, then you have been making boiled salads unawares. In the 17th century Dutch cookbook The Sensible Cook there are recipes for boiled salads, and then there are recipes for various herbs, like boiled cabbage and boiled cauliflower that are not called salads, just a dish of….
So much for theory. Soon – recipes.
Colonial Foodways Culinarian