Let us rewind, lettuce history

Vicki Cooke rewinds history and unravels the myths and magic of the humble lettuce

Lettuce is easy to grow and comes in all shapes and colours. Image: Vicki Cooke
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Beatrix Potter’s bunnies and Hampton Court Palace’s most favourite resident were both partial to this vegetable, though for very different reasons. Foodstuff, medicine or a convenient vehicle for caesar sauce, if you think that lettuce is merely plate decoration then prepare to have your (butter) head expanded.

Soporific ingredients

Lettuce beds at Hampton Court kitchen garden. Image: Vicki Cooke

The milky white sap of wild lettuce was once gathered to make a ‘poor man’s opium’, possessing similar, soporific qualities in a much diluted form. Though the cultivation of the edible lettuce from the wild form has bred most of this property out, it still persists in folklore, such as in the tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, who had a close call with Mr MacGregor’s stewpot due to falling asleep after a lettuce-feast.

Illustrations of the cultivated Romaine type lettuces can be found in the tombs of the Pharaohs and they were considered sacred to the god of fertility, Min. While not wanting to speculate on Henry VIII’s reasons for including lettuce in his diet, modern research has shown some correlation between eating lettuce and male fertility. Lettuce was also seen as a food to balance the humours- the dominant medical theory at the time. By eating something cold and wet it would balance out other hot and dry foods.

Boiled lettuce anyone?

It was important to prepare it properly though, which in the Tudor time would have usually involved boiling. It’s hard to imagine this improving the texture or flavour of lettuce but the reasoning behind it would have seemed sound to our ancestors. In an age where most crops were fertilised with dung, possibly without following the advice familiar to us today to ensure that all manures are well rotted down before use, it is likely that pathogens from the dung would get onto food crops. Fresh water supplies were also suspect at the time so washing produce was also no guarantee to prevent spread of disease. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that there would have been very little fresh veg eaten raw, and most salads would be boiled, salted or pickled as a way of preventing a nasty bout of food poisoning.

Wide variety

Overwintered lettuce. Image: Vicki Cooke

By the time John Evelyn wrote his discourse on salads in the late 1600s, raw lettuces were back on the menu and he lists at least 16 different types available in London. Many of these we are still familiar with today – the bittersweet crunch of cos types, loose, wavy edged oakleafs and the sweet, closely packed leaves of butter and crisp heads. With such diversity on offer, how is it that the only type I remember eating through the 1980s and 90s was the iceberg?

If lettuce has a reputation for blandness then the blame can be squarely put upon the iceberg. It is crisp, but flavourless, insipid in colour and is about as nutritious as a glass of water. Its one redeeming feature for the market though is its longevity. Most lettuces need to be picked and eaten within a few days if not hours. Icebergs can keep their crispness for a week or more, making them the ideal lettuce for importing over long distances and sitting on supermarket shelves for extended time periods. Its days were numbered when the bagged salad came to the fore so it too may one day become another footnote in the long history of the lettuce.

Rejoice in lettuce

If you want to rekindle the diversity and history of the past 3000 years of lettuce history, take matters into your own hand. Reject the bland and the prepacked and rediscover the joy of juicy crisp leaves on a summer day. No need to boil though!

Vicki Cooke

About Vicki Cooke

After scrambling through some of the various branches of horticulture, Vicki realised that food production was where her heart is (or should that be stomach!). She spent six years growing traditional UK vegetable varieties for seed at Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library. In 2014 she began a new chapter at Hampton Court Palace, recreating a section of the original walled kitchen garden - so she can now grow historic favourites in an historic setting.
Garden Media Guild New Talent Award
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