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The Garden Gate: Does your salad start or end the meal?

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

We tend to think of ourselves as diet-conscious, calorie-counting, cholesterol-aware, modern salad gourméts. It comes as rather a surprise to find that we aren’t all that different from everyone else down through the ages, after all.

John Evelyn, the famous diarist of the 17th century, wrote at length about the virtues of salad. Almost all the salad recipes he listed included dandelions and violets, and sometimes lilacs for scent.

Also popular for salads in the 17th century were spinach and cresses, as well as vegetables such as celery, carrots, cabbage, cold boiled potatoes, green beans and peas, for color and variety.

A popular 18th-century dish was called salamagundi. Its many ingredients were carefully arranged on a large platter to create a pattern of different colors. They were accompanied by a large bowl of dressing to be ladled over a plate of whatever part of the salad pattern one chose to put on a plate.

The dressing was composed of exotic vinegars infused with carnation, rosemary, elder and roses, nasturtium and mint. After that was a salt-and-pepper and powdered saffron, as well as orange or lemon rind shreds.  The whole thing was to be garnished with sliced hard-boiled eggs.

All of this was to be chopped up with a silver knife. No other kind was to be used!

Though its beginnings are unknown, lettuce is an ancient herbal plant. Botanists say it was developed from wild lettuce, the compass plant mentioned in the Bible.

Aristoxenus grew garden lettuce in 5 B.C. with such pride that he had it watered with wine and honey. Lettuce was grown in the famous hanging gardens of Babylon.

Lettuce comes in a wide variety of forms: firm and round, soft and loosely formed, tall and upright or rosette shaped.

It also comes in a great variety of colors: from pale green and white to russet, deep emerald green, and red. It is an annual which can be easily grown in most areas.

Physicians of the 15th century had never heard of vitamins. They were, nonetheless, on the right track when they recommended salads as part of a healthy diet and suggested goutweed as a preventive measure.

The word “salad” dates back to the days of Caesar, when Romans sprinkled sal (salt) on their salads. Long before that, however, people were eating salads or salad-type foods.

Primitive people sampled sweet grasses, pungent herbs and savory weeds. The ancient Egyptians were skilled in the art of mixing oil, vinegar and oriental spices to pour over mixed greens.

The Greeks served salads as a final course at meals — a fresh, crisp ending after a sweet dessert.

The French were probably the first to improve on the ancient Roman idea of salads by mixing herbs into them and adding other ingredients to the point where in 1500, a complete salad bowl contained at least 35 ingredients. Some favorite additions were parsley, chopped parsnips, fennel, angelica, young primrose, violets, sage and marjoram.

Tomatoes, the Aztec tomatl, were originally thought to be poisonous. They were seldom eaten until the end of the 18th century, when daring gourméts such as Thomas Jefferson led the way to serving them.

The general public kept its distance until the 1860s, when tomatoes became more common in salads. They also became popular because they could be easily canned.

Salad greens were popular in colonial America. A salad of several kinds of lettuce embellished with nasturtiums was popular.

In the elegant 1890s, wealthy American hostesses imported French chefs to mix and serve their salads, but salad did not become generally popular until the early 1920s. Now many of us do not consider a meal complete without a salad.

In Victorian times salad was one of the most pervasive French influences in the United States and quickly was included in most dinner menus. It was often called French to identify it as a green, leafy dish dressed with oil and vinegar, mustard and mashed boiled egg yolks. The term was to distinguish it from the popular chicken or lobster salads.

There are some interesting superstitions about salads. One is that if you plant green salad plants while the wind is blowing from the north, the leaves will shed from the plant.

Another old fear is that if you plant lettuce on Good Friday, it will not grow. And to insure your garden against witches, you must sow at least one variety of seed, preferably lettuce, with your back to a well-prepared seed bed, by throwing the seed over your shoulder and saying, “This is for me, this is for my neighbor, and this is for the devil.”

Salad ingredients are versatile. They can include most cooked and chilled vegetables, many herbs, flowers and fruits.

Beans were popular as a staple food in ancient times. Alexander the Great brought white beans from India and set a fashion for bean salad in Macedonia, Greece and Rome, which has lasted to this day. Peas were as popular then as they are now.

Garlic is a cultivated plant of such antiquity that its origin is unknown. Cabbage was deified by the Egyptians, and onions and leeks were held in high esteem all over the ancient world.

It would seem that nothing is really new. It all just comes around again from time to time, like a continuously run double-feature movie.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.