By Katherine Hale –
Iceberg lettuce no longer reigns supreme, but from a botanical perspective things still look pretty sparse at the salad bar when it comes to leafy greens. Despite the growing popularity of upstarts like kale and spinach, chances are that when you think about salad, you’re probably thinking about lettuce, full stop. Certainly things have gotten more interesting on the lettuce front in recent years—a quick stroll at the local farmer’s market will introduce novices to cascades of ruffled oakleaves and colorful romaines with evocative names like Deer Tongue, Red Salad Bowl, and my personal favorite, Flashy Trout Back. With so many choices, it’s easy to forget that all of this diversity derives from just one species: the edible lettuce, Lactuca sativa, the foundation for the majority of salads as we know them.
But lettuce, it turns out, is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg (so to speak). Historically, salads encompassed a wider range of botanical possibilities—so much so that John Evelyn, a famous Restoration garden writer, devoted an entire treatise on the subject. Published in October 1699, Acteria: A Discourse of Sallets proves once and for all that monotony is not destiny when it comes to dinner.
Salads might seem like a frivolous choice for a formal write-up, but they offer a unique window on the potent intersection of human culture and the natural world. As Evelyn argues in the book’s dedication to John Somers, the president of the Royal Society of London (the most distinguished body of scientists at the time), “My Lord, this Subject, as low and despicable as it appears, challenges a Part of Natural History, and the Greatest Princes have thought it no Disgrace, not only to make it their Diversion, but their Care”. In Evelyn’s eyes, the lowliest hyssop as no less worthy of study than the famous cedars of Lebanon—“but my Reputation is in danger….should Your Lordship hence suspect that one could never write so much of dressing Sallets, who minded anything serious”. The end result is, in Evelyn’s words, “Part of Natural History, the Product of Horticulture, and the Field” as well of “Part of Philosophy” and a tour of classical literary and culinary history to boot.
Many of Evelyn’s ingredients are familiar denizens of the supermarket produce aisle—basil, beets, radishes and scallions. His artichaux, sellery and sparagus are still recognizable to our tables even though their historical spellings are not. Other vegetables—skirret, orach, scorzonera and sea-kale— are commonly eaten in Europe, but only available from specialty seed catalogues in the US. Then there are ingredients whose names grace our weed lists instead of our menus, untasted by all but the most adventurous foragers—horse parsley, English daisy, wood sorrel, stonecrop, dock, mallow, nettles, cleavers, and sow-thistle, to name just a few. Evelyn’s Jack-by-the-Hedge is “eaten as other Sallets, especially by Country People growing wild under their Banks and Hedges”; we know it as garlic mustard, and bemoan its encroachment across wide swathes of land in New England. Other plants, like sampier and scurvy-grass, have not traveled much outside of Europe and remain relatively obscure.
Of course, no treatise on salad would be complete without mention of lettuce, and Evelyn does not disappoint on that score. Lettuce “still continues the principal Foundation of the universal Tribe of Sallets…of Nature more cold and moist than any of the rest; yet less astringent, and so harmless it may be safely eaten raw in Fevers…. [it] conciliates Sleep, mitigates Pain” and improves temperance and chastity to boot. “In a word, we meet with nothing among all our crude Materials and Sallet store, so proper to mingle with any of the rest, nor so wholsome to be eaten alone, or in Composition, moderately, and with the usual Oxeloeum of Vinegar, Pepper and Oyl &tc.” Or, to put it a different way, the reason why lettuce is so popular is that it goes with everything and doesn’t necessarily taste like anything in itself. It is the perfect neutral player of the vegetable kingdom.
Evelyn is not an impartial commentator. A firm believer in the doctrine of four humors popular at the time, his notes reflect a preoccupation with the medicinal benefits of his meals and their effects on moral character. (A quick flip through popular magazines suggests this obsession will always be with us.) His prejudices, however, do not always conform to modern tastes. Raw spinach, for instance, is “of old not us’d in Sallets, and the oftener kept out the better” but redeems itself when “boil’d to a Pult…with Butter, Vinegar, or Limon, for almost all sorts of boil’d flesh, and may accompany a Sick Man’s Diet”. Purslane is best “in moderation, as having been sometimes found to corrupt in the stomach, which being Pickl’d ’tis not so apt to do so”. He weighs in on a furious debate about mushrooms—“I think them tolerable only (at least in this Climate) if being fresh and skillfully chosen, they are accommodated with the nicest Care and Circumspection” yet acknowledges there is “something malignant and noxious in them” responsible for “the many sad Examples, frequent Mischiefs, and funest Accidents they have produc’d, not only to particular Persons, but whole Families”. He’s partial to elderberry flowers pickled in vinegar, and a big fan of melons, lauding them “Paragon with the noblest Productions of the Garden” if grown under the right conditions.
For Evelyn, assembling a salad requires skills that should not be taken lightly or ignored. The most important is basic botanical knowledge. “How many fatal Mistakes have been committed by those who took the deadly Cicuta, Hemlocks, Aconits, &tc for Garden Persley and Parsneps,” Evelyn bemoans. Even today, people die from the same errors. Yet the effort is worth making, not only to show one’s skills as a gardener, but because salads are so healthful, nourishing and tasty when constructed correctly.
Furthermore, salads are a model for harmony and art in Evelyn’s universe. “Every Plant should come to bear its part, without being over-power’d by some Herb of stronger Taste, so as to endanger the native Sapor and vertue of the rest; but fall into their places like the Notes in Music, in which there should be nothing harsh or grating,” he comments. The dressing offers the final touch in an ultimately pleasing composition, bringing the dish together. Looking good is important, but the real definition of success is how it balances on the palate and how it nourishes body and spirit alike.
For all his quirks and eccentricities from a modern perspective, I find Evelyn refreshing. He’s so earnest and emphatic—or earnest and emphatic, I should say—that it is impossible not to be throughly charm’d by his Writing, no matter how humble or obscure his Subject Matter. Not only does he included detailed descriptions of seventy-three distinct ingredients, often encompassing multiple species in each entry, he provides readers with separate denoted which ingredients are best blanched versus raw, and when they should be harvested in the garden. There’s even a three-page description of how to make the perfect salad dressing. As someone whose life goals include consuming as many different (edible) plant species as possible, I find Evelyn’s treatise especially fascinating. I’ve always been one to pause in line at the salad bar, and Acetaria continues to inspire me to look more closely at what I’m eating and examine my own preoccupations and prejudices about food. What have I been missing out on all these years? What other culinary delights await me on that fruitful edge between the wild and the cultivated? What exactly is it that makes a really good meal? Perhaps most importantly, what should I have for lunch?
Inspired by Evelyn’s musings on the botanical and culinary arts, this morning I took meal creation to a new height. I shredded cabbage, mixed it with a little wild chickweed I found emerging from the vegetable beds in the garden, and sprinkled chopped apples, walnuts and pumpkin seeds on top. I mixed up an impromptu dressing of freshly ground mustard seeds, vinegar and a smattering of honey with enough olive oil to transform a dense paste to a passable liquid, and doused my concoction liberally. Before I picked up my fork, I studied the character of my salad and judged it pleasing and harmonious to the eye. My palate agreed: this botanical smörgåsbord tasted good, too. John Evelyn, I thought, would have approved—of the approach, at least, if not all the particulars.