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It is hard to really know how far back in time people have been eating cabbage. Now we eat cabbage in soups, stews, salads and casseroles without realizing our kinship to all the people in all the countries and all the eras in history who have done the very same thing.
Cabbage is mentioned in many places in the Bible with full descriptions of gardens and crops, and even some methods of cooking and preserving this versatile vegetable.
We tend to think of cabbage as a very ho-hum vegetable, but its history is colorful, venerable and interesting to a remarkable degree.
The Han-Shu, a document written in ancient China, lists all the edible plants grown there at that time. In it, cabbage holds a venerable place. It was widely grown all over China as early as the 7th century B.C., and had a notable role in the building of the famous Great Wall of China, where the coolies working on this project ate cabbage and rice, sometimes with rice wine added as a preservative.
The sour cabbage which we call sauerkraut became a prized dish. A thousand years later when the Tartars, under their ruler, Genghis Khan, gained control of China, they too liked this cabbage dish and carried it with them in their storming across eastern and central China and Europe, although instead of using wine to preserve it they used salt. The Russians, Poles, Magyars and Austrians learned about cabbage from the Tartar hordes.
Gardening in ancient Greece was a serious project, and many plants were sacred to one deity or another. Pine trees were dedicated to Pan and Boreas; oaks to Zeus; beeches to Hercules; ash, yew and poppies to Aries; grapes and ivy to Bacchus; olives to Athena; myrtles, apples and roses to Aphrodite; and mint to Pluto.
The tears of Lycurgus generated the cabbage!
The laurel represented the transformation of Daphne into a tree when she fled from Apollo's advances to her.
Aphrodite was given credit for the rose and the violet and was the patron saint, or goddess, of flowers.
The average Roman in the earliest days lived mostly on vegetables. Everyone had his own little garden patch in which to raise them.
They had asparagus, beets, endives, fennel and leeks, and Cato, the Sabine farmer, raised cabbage.
Roman farmers knew and used many techniques of horticulture that were mostly forgotten later. They had to rediscover some of them, such as green manuring with vetch, seed selection, crop rotation, the use of compost, budding, grafting and pruning.
Two of the propagating methods described by Virgil are still in use. When they transplanted their favorite cabbage, they fertilized it with chopped seaweed.
In Europe, during the medieval, monastic period, St. Jerome, who lived from 343 to 420 A.D., admonished the monks who tended the vegetable garden, “Hoe your ground and set out cabbages. Convey water to them in conduits.”
On his first voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus encountered many plants strange to him. These included cotton, maize and pineapple, as well as the more familiar cabbages, onions, parsnips and turnips.
By 1572, Spanish farmers were settled in lower Georgia, and travelers reported good crops of corn, lettuce, radishes, pumpkins and cabbage.
Cabbage was a staple in all Renaissance gardens. Manuscript cookbooks of that era include many cabbage recipes.
By the 17th century in England, Richard Gardiner had written a book, “Profitable Instructions for the Manuring, Sowing, Planting and Harvesting of Kichen Gardens.”
He was, it seems, especially fond of cabbage, lettuce and carrots.
In Colonial America, from Massachusetts Bay to the settlements which made up the colony of Virginia, a common culinary heritage produced striking similarities in the gardens and orchards planted with the English settlers.
In a letter sent back to England by Alexander Whittaker of Virginia was the report: “Our English seeds thrive very well here, asparagus, onions, turnips, coleflowers, carretts, many herbs and above all cabbages.”
He might have been describing the usual produce of any other northeastern settlement as that of Virginia.
Nor was there very much difference between the gardens planted by the Hollanders and the Swedes in the middle colonies and their predecessor English neighbors.
Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth Colony, who considered himself a poet, wrote a very fulsome poem about the delights of cabbage and grew quite lyrical about dishes involving “the faire cabbage.”
It is really hard to know just how far back in time people have been eating cabbage. Is it possible that cabbage was part of the Garden of Eden? Or was it one of the edible plants of prehistoric times?
Perhaps we should have cabbage for dinner tonight. There are so many varieties now, and they come in several colors.
Cabbage could be made the highlight of the meal, as it has already been for thousands of years.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.