Wednesday, May 26, 2010

veggie legends

i’m curious about the histories and legends behind vegetables and fruits--especially specific heirlooms, i love looking up their backgrounds and finding out from where their colorful names originate. so i was pretty excited to find this book, “vegetables in the garden and their legends,” by vernon quinn. it's a good mix of legends and quotes from old herbalists and botanists like pliny the elder and john gerard. the book is from 1942, both out-of-date and remarkably dated...the author even makes disturbing comments about “negroes.”

if you’re interested in such a book but don’t want to look past the author’s bullshit, check out william woys weaver, he’s a much more contemporary, non-racist sort of food/plant expert/historian, and he’s very prolific. weaver goes into detail about a lot of cool heirlooms, however i thought some of the legends in quinn’s book were more interesting than weaver’s.

here are a few excerpts (along with scans of the book's illustrations), starting with my favorite one about lettuce:

Even the ancients knew that the best time to gather lettuce is in the early morning, while the leaves are cool from the night air and crisp and fresh with its moisture.

When superstition was so prevalent in the Middle Ages, this early gathering of lettuce acquired an explanation which to this day is believed by the peasants of central Europe. Witches frolic in the lettuce fields the whole night through, they say, and in daytime the plants are in the keeping of a myriad little devils. Only between dawn when the witches depart and sunrise when the devils come can the leaves be gathered with safety.

In Old Japan, in the long, long ago, a prince was walking in his garden. As he stooped to pick a luscious-looking cucumber, he heard a tinkling voice, and there sat a tiny man on one of the green leaves.

“I am the Genie of the Cucumber,” said the little creature, “and I have come to make a bargain with you. Promise never again to eat a cucumber, neither you nor your family; never to break one from the vine; and I will take you and all your descendants under my protection.”

The prince readily agreed; and from that day the cucumber has appeared on the crest of his family, and the vines have been grown for their beauty alone—and as a gesture, perhaps, actuated by a lingering belief in the Genie of the Cucumber.

The odd-looking currant-tomato from Peru is a different species, burdened with the lengthy name Lycopersicum piminellifolium. But it is not grown as a vegetable. While its wee red tomatoes, currant-size and very round, are edible, they are too small to interest the housewife except as an ornament in the flower garden. Yet what a colorful and unique addition they would make to a salad! (88)

(i didn’t realize how tiny currant tomatoes are when i started seeds for white currant. the fruits are downright microscopic, each about the size of a pea. i’ve never laid eyes on a tomato that small and i can’t wait to see them...i’ve also never seen white tomatoes. they’re not going to look like tomatoes at all. i will eat them, though, regardless of how “the housewife” might feel about it.)

In northern Europe peas were grown at least as far back as the Bronze Age, and there was a medieval legend that they came direct from the Thundergod Thor--not as a gift but in punishment.

At some remote time, when Thor was angry with men, he sent dragons flying through the air carrying peas in their talons to fill up all the wells. As the peas rotted, the water would be so fouled with their sulphurous odor that neither man nor beast would drink it. But some of the peas which the dragons dropped fell on land; and men had a new vegetable. To appease Thor’s wrath they dedicated it to him, and as a further gesture they ate peas only on his day, Thursday.

Thereafter when the Thundergod was annoyed he merely sent dwarfs to the pea-fields to strip the vines of their pods.

Parsley was grown by the ancients, but not always for food. It was the accepted strewing herb for the tombs of the dead. And as a symbol of death, it was used to crown victors in the Nemean Games--one of the four national festivals of the ancient Greeks. (224)

So implicitly was parsley looked upon as the death-herb that, according to an ancient tradition, an entire Greek army was once thrown into panic and put to rout when the enemy sent into their midst a donkey completely covered with this herb. (225)

Parsley seeds are very slow to germinate, often requiring three to four weeks. The reason for their slowness, it is said in Devonshire, is because this herb belongs to the devil, and when the seeds are placed in the ground they must go seven times to him and back, before he will permit them to sprout. (227)

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