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The Garden Gate: Veggie eating law of the land in ancient Rome

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Everyone knows how important vegetables, greens and fruits are to our nutritional well being.

We should give ourselves credit for having this knowledge — and for having the good sense to make salads an important part of every good dinner.

It is nice to know that the ancient Romans felt just as smug about their nutritional expertise, since they also felt that a salad was an essential part of a good dinner.

In fact, it was actually a matter of law. Romans were compelled to eat salads and greens.

Though its beginnings are unknown, lettuce has been cultivated for a very long time. Botanists say it was first developed from wild lettuce and the compass plant.

Aristoxenes, in the fifth century B.C. was so proud of his garden lettuce that he had it watered daily with wine and honey.

Lettuce in ancient times was much valued for its many medicinal qualities.

The story goes that the Emperor Augustus Caesar of Rome became ill. Since his many physicians could not find a cure for his illness, he summoned an astrologer, who first cast his horoscope and then went into his garden and lay on his back in a lettuce planting to study the planets.

Here, inspiration came to him. The emperor was to take no medicine, food or drink other than lettuce, of which he was to consume great amounts.

He recovered from his illness. In gratitude, he erected a statue of the astrologer holding a great handful of lettuce and an altar to acknowledge his appreciation for lettuce.

Lettuce was grown for salad in the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the wonderful terraced gardens famous throughout the known world of that time.

One of the more famous and amazing productions of this ancient time was a series of Assyrian clay tablets compiled in the seventh century B.C. which list more than 100 plants and specify more than 250 vegetable-containing medicines. Lettuce was a principal ingredient in many of them.

Lettuce comes in a great variety of forms and colors. It is an annual which can be quite easily grown in most areas.

Seeds for all kinds of lettuce can be readily obtained. Growing lettuce is always rewarding. Nothing quite equals the crisp salad that results from gathering fresh leaves, crisping them in cold water and serving them immediately with your favorite accompaniments.

Doctors of the 15th century, never having heard of vitamins, were nevertheless on the right track when they recommended salads as part of a healthful diet. They suggested gout weed as an additional ingredient for preventive reasons.

Salad greens were popular in Colonial America. A “sallett” of several kinds embellished with nasturtiums was popular along with the lettuces. 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.

Salads, which are, of course, really vegetable mixtures, have steadily grown in popularity in recent years.

Centuries ago, there were raw herbs found in field and forest, then dressed with brine, oil and vinegar, and which then became medical prescriptions.

One Roman contribution was the hot salad, which was largely green vegetables blanched with herbs. It was the French who first improved on Apicius' Roman recipe by mixing fresh greens with herbs.

Untraveled Scots frequently still refer to salads as “those uncooked greens.”

France makes oily salads. Germany makes vinegary ones. English salad has been critically termed “the infancy of mixed pickles.” American salads seem to incorporate all of these ideas.

Very old papyrus scrolls found in Egypt list medicinal herbs used by many ancient physicians, among them lettuce. Some historians go so far as to conjecture that references to lotus in ancient papyri really are referring to lettuce.

It has been suggested that we owe the idea of “pot gardening” to the Greeks who planted quick-growing seeds of lettuce in small pots for the festival of Adonis. After their quick growth the plants faded as fast symbolizing the early death of Aphrodite's young lover Adonis.

The potted plants were used to decorate statues of Adonis and were placed on the flat housetops during this summer festival.

This custom, which had originally signified the reproductive life cycle of all plants, came to represent impermanence and the fleeting pleasures of life.

Many new varieties of lettuce have been developed in recent years. One which has been popular in China for a long time is Chinese stem lettuce, a variety in which the wide stem rather than the leaves is the edible part.

It is used in Chinese cookery somewhat like the water chestnut, which it rather resembles in taste. Although it is easy to grow, it is rarely found in this county.

More familiar is the close relative plant, celtuce, which is notable for its very high vitamin C content.

How nice it is that something so nutritious and so attractive to see can be so endlessly original and different and so good every time we put it together!

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