Sunday Food; Munch the Lettuce
(Picture courtesy of liz west at flickr.com.)
A main product of my gardens has always been lettuce, something I’ve always loved fresh and homegrown. The perfect salad is easiest to make when you walk out into the yard and pick the ingredients.
Lettuce was first cultivated in ancient Egypt for the production of oil from its seeds. This plant was probably selectively bred by the Egyptians into a plant grown for its edible leaves, with evidence of its cultivation appearing as early as 2680 BC. Lettuce was considered a sacred plant of the reproduction god Min, and it was carried during his festivals and placed near his images. The plant was thought to help the god “perform the sexual act untiringly.” Its use in religious ceremonies resulted in the creation of many images in tombs and wall paintings. The cultivated variety appears to have been about 30 inches (76 cm) tall and resembled a large version of the modern romaine lettuce. These upright lettuces were developed by the Egyptians and passed to the Greeks, who in turn shared them with the Romans. Circa 50 AD, Roman agriculturalist Columella described several lettuce varieties – some of which may have been ancestors of today’s lettuces.
Lettuce appears in many medieval writings, especially as a medicinal herb. Hildegard of Bingen mentioned it in her writings on medicinal herbs between 1098 and 1179, and many early herbals also describe its uses. In 1586, Joachim Camerarius provided descriptions of the three basic modern lettuces – head lettuce, loose-leaf lettuce and romaine or cos lettuce. Lettuce was first brought to the Americas from Europe by Christopher Columbus in the late 15th century. Between the late 16th century and the early 18th century, many varieties were developed in Europe, particularly Holland. Books published in the mid-18th and early 19th centuries describe several varieties found in gardens today.
Due to its short life span after harvest, lettuce was originally sold relatively close to where it was grown. The early 1900s saw the development of new packing, storage and shipping technologies that improved the lifespan and transportability of lettuce and resulted in a significant increase in availability. During the 1950s, lettuce production was revolutionized with the development of vacuum cooling, which allowed field cooling and packing of lettuce, replacing the previously used method of ice-cooling in packing houses outside the fields.
Lettuce is very easy to grow, and as such has been a significant source of sales for many seed companies. Tracing the history of many varieties is complicated by the practice of many companies, particularly in the US, of changing a variety’s name from year to year. This was done for several reasons, the most prominent being to boost sales by promoting a “new” variety or to prevent customers from knowing that the variety had been developed by a competing seed company. Documentation from the late 19th century shows between 65 and 140 distinct varieties of lettuce, depending on the amount of variation allowed between types – a distinct difference from the 1,100 named lettuce varieties on the market at the time. Names also often changed significantly from country to country. Although most lettuce grown today is used as a vegetable, a minor amount is used in the production of tobacco-free cigarettes; however, domestic lettuce’s wild relatives produce a leaf that visually more closely resembles tobacco.
Hopefully, you have some small or large plot for planting this perfect home product. Growing your own takes just a bit of time, and I plant it in series, so that some fresh is coming up while the earlier planting is getting too old for picking.