Sunday, January 08, 2012

Farm Bulletin: The Vegetables of Vinegar & Salt, Pt. 1

Just when I start thinking we 21st Century types are soooooo smart, someone digs up some old dude who had it so much more together than we do. One such old dude is John Evelyn, who was all over a diet of vegetables about, oh, 300-plus years ago. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm has been getting to know Mr. Evelyn of late, and shares his discoveries with us.

The ancient Romans classified vegetables by the method of preparation. The olera are the pot herbs, customarily cooked, from which we get that word often floating at the tips of our tongues, olericulture, the growing of vegetables for the kitchen. Acetaria are the vegetables the Romans consumed raw with vinegar (acetic acid), oil and salt. Interestingly, in a linguistic departure from the Romans, the modern European languages, from English to Armenian, from Spanish to Swedish, focus on the historically more valuable ingredient, the salt, in describing the preparation and use of these vegetables. Giving us salad, sallad, salade, salata, salat, ensalada, insalata, etc.

John Evelyn (above), the 17th century English gardener and author of several books, planned a grand encyclopedic work on gardening. As the project foundered and age caught up with him, Evelyn reluctantly published parts of the work separately. "Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets" (1699) is devoted to the salad; the work is a blend of scholarship, practicum and advocacy.

Unwilling to sign a loyalty pledge to Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, the young Evelyn traveled through Europe, returning home with the restoration of the monarchy. Those years spent in Spain, Holland, France and the Italian states gave him a deep appreciation for the salad as the foundation of good health, and as an art form in its own right. Written in the Baroque period, the book exhibits the period's paradox of complex brevity, especially as Evelyn assumes the reader is his peer with a working knowledge of Greek and Roman authors. Much as today's young Latinos comfortably alternate between English and Spanish in conversation, Evelyn slips in Latin or Greek words and phrases on regular basis. Still, peeling aside the arcane spelling and grammar, along with the unfamiliar and oblique references, "Acetaria" is a book very much in line with our 21st century sensibilities and a pleasure to read.

The first section of the book details over seventy wild and domesticated plants suitable for use in a salad. Many are familiar to modern readers and are included at various times in the Ayers Creek salad mixes. The inventory is lightened by Evelyn's droll humor. For example, under sage, he notes: "In short, 'tis a plant endu'd with so many and wonderful properties, as that the assiduous use of it is said to render men immortal: we cannot therefore but allow the tender summities of the young leaves; but principally the flowers in our cold sallet; yet so as not to domineer." And his dismissive assessment of spinach as a salad ingredient still rings true: "of old, not used in sallets, and the oftener kept out the better." Even today, growers bulk up salad mixes with spinach, so cheap and easy to grow, yet a poor use of this fine green best cooked. The acrid flavor of the raw spinach must be softened by the use of cream or cheese-based concoctions akin to sauces rather than a true salad dressing.

Evelyn concludes the inventory by warning that the gathering of salad greens is no job for a fool. He disparages old rules of thumb for determining what greens are edible, and lists deadly plants that may mislead an ignorant collector. He also dismisses the prescriptive guidance of fellow Englishman, the herbalist Nicolas Culpepper, in determining when to harvest greens based on astrology, counseling instead to look at the quality of greens and "judge of their vertues by their own complexions." His punchy confidence is endearing.

Read The Vegetables of Vinegar & Salt, Part Two.


Lynn D. said...

I came across Acetaria nearly 40 years ago and I think my salads have benefitted from reading it. It's good to hear from someone else who appreciates Evelyn's work.

Kathleen Bauer said...

Glad to be a conduit, Lynn! I'll let Anthony know his labor isn't for naught.