Vegetables: A Biography

Vegetables: A Biography

by Evelyne Bloch-Dano

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From Michael Pollan to locavores, Whole Foods to farmers' markets,  today cooks and foodies alike are paying more attention than ever before to the history of the food they bring into their kitchens—and especially to vegetables. Whether it’s an heirloom tomato, curled cabbage, or succulent squash, from a farmers' market or a backyard plot, the


From Michael Pollan to locavores, Whole Foods to farmers' markets,  today cooks and foodies alike are paying more attention than ever before to the history of the food they bring into their kitchens—and especially to vegetables. Whether it’s an heirloom tomato, curled cabbage, or succulent squash, from a farmers' market or a backyard plot, the humble vegetable offers more than just nutrition—it also represents a link with long tradition of farming and gardening, nurturing and breeding.

In this charming new book, those veggies finally get their due. In capsule biographies of eleven different vegetables—artichokes, beans, chard, cabbage, cardoons, carrots, chili peppers, Jerusalem artichokes, peas, pumpkins, and tomatoes—Evelyne Bloch-Dano explores the world of vegetables in all its facets, from science and agriculture to history, culture, and, of course, cooking. From the importance of peppers in early international trade to the most recent findings in genetics, from the cultural cachet of cabbage to Proust’s devotion to beef-and-carrot stew, to the surprising array of vegetables that preceded the pumpkin as the avatar of All Hallow’s Eve, Bloch-Dano takes readers on a dazzling tour of the fascinating stories behind our daily repasts.

Spicing her cornucopia with an eye for anecdote and a ready wit, Bloch-Dano has created a feast that’s sure to satisfy gardeners, chefs, and eaters alike.

Editorial Reviews

Dominique Browning
…delivers satisfaction in fabulous fashion.
—The New York Times Book Review
"Bloch-Dano displays here erudite command of culinary history with both literary and historical anecdotes. . . . Digesting the contents of this little book yields a trove of trivia with which to impress shoppers and vendors alike at the farmers' market."

on the French edition

— Le Nouvel observateur
"A lovely book that makes you feel at once hungry for these plants and satiated by the knowledge you just reaped about them."

Guardian (UK)
“This is a wonderfully evocative and indeed mouthwatering celebration of vegetables and the joys of gardening. . . . Bloch-Dano takes 10 vegetables, from the carrot and the cabbage to the pumpkin and the pea, and explores their history, drawing on literature, art, language, geography, genetics and horticulture. She even throws in some recipes. There are many delightful details. The artichoke was Freud's favourite plant, apparently reminding him of tearing up a book as a child. On parsnips, she cites Samuel Beckett: ‘I like parsnips because they taste like violets, and violets because they smell like parsnips.’ Bloch-Dano says ‘gardens are rooted in the realm of the imagination.’ So too are vegetables, as her slight but rich book shows.”
Jane S. Smith
"This allusive, impressionistic, quintessentially French tour of the kitchen garden takes us from aphrodisiac artichokes to Zola's gritty market stalls, with many a literary and gustatory detour. Lazy summers in grandmother's garden, the frenzy for fresh winter peas that gripped the court at Versailles in 1660, the global travels of the chili pepper, the contested history of Cinderella’s pumpkin—it's all here, and it's all fun."

on the French edition - Marie Claire
"From Grandma's vegetable garden to our childhood tables, from personal memories—yes, members of the pumpkin family are also Proustian madeleines—to the origins of vegetables and to the way they have been cooked throughout the ages and on different continents, from the healing cabbage to the aphrodisiacal artichoke, we feast upon so much new information and upon how we can benefit from it."

Times Literary Supplement
"Quirky . . . entertaining. . . . Bloch-Dano's book confirms that we are what we eat, and that vegetables, like Bloch-Dano's gardens, are firmly rooted in the realm of imagination."
Library Journal
It's a tall order to discuss ten vegetables in ten brief chapters with panache, history, and cultural and scientific insight. Readers will be delighted that Bloch-Dano (Madame Proust: A Biography) delivers with this thoroughly refreshing view of ten veggies that everyone will recognize from the produce aisle of the grocery store. The book begins with a discussion of taste and a section on food and eating—both of which lay the groundwork for the following chapters on the individual vegetables. The book was inspired by a friend of Bloch-Dano, who challenged the author to produce "biographies" for multiple vegetables. These short pieces were then presented to the participants of a program that taught individuals how to garden. That friend's challenge was more than met by these charming sketches, which, through Fagan's translation, are now available for all English speakers to enjoy. VERDICT Recommended for readers interested in the history and culture surrounding food and cooking.—Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC

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University of Chicago Press
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By Evelyne Bloch-Dano

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-05994-5

Chapter One

A Little History

GOOD TO Eat, GOOD TO Think About

Nourishment is central to living, from the air we breathe to the food we ingest; nourishment is what keeps us alive, but also what connects us to our environment, our history, our society, our times, our social status—to others. For Claude Lévi-Strauss, "the cooking of a society is a language into which it unconsciously translates its structure, or else resigns itself, still unconsciously, to revealing its contradictions": as a touchstone for our behavior and beliefs, our myths, our systems of organization, cooking is not only "good to eat," but also "good to think about."

To nourish oneself, to eat ... "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are," wrote the nineteenth-century gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin at the beginning of his Physiologie du goût (1825). But tell me what you eat, and I will also tell you what connection you have with your loved ones, with nature, with culture, with society. By feeding ourselves, we are not just addressing our corporeal envelope (thin, fat, too thin, too fat) but also our brain, our senses, our psyche. Humans are the only living beings not to mechanically submit to the constraints of their environment, but to be able to choose their food according to criteria that are not physiological but symbolic. They might favor this symbolic dimension to the detriment of their health or life: food seen as mana that gives life but can also cause death; foods that are taboo, totemic, whose substance is incorporated; rituals, forbidden or made sacred, from the young Hua of Papua New Guinea who eat a fast-growing vegetable to grow faster, to the Jew or the Muslim who refrains from eating pork, from the Indian Brahman who will not eat the flesh of a cow, to the Christian who symbolically absorbs the body of Christ through the host. But there is a symbolic dimension in all the great gatherings in life that are marked by rituals: marriage or anniversary meals, Saint Sylvester feasts or funeral lunches. Companions, friends, are those with whom one breaks bread.

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. * GENESIS 1:29

Today food is of interest to anthropologists, archaeologists, archaeozoologists (who teach us, for example, that contrary to what is believed, the Gauls ate less wild boar than domesticated beef or horse), historians (through the study of table manners or the history of taste and food), psychologists, linguists (here's a riddle: what French word has the same derivation as the word "pudding"?), geographers, economists, sociologists, botanists, doctors, biologists, and politicians. Terrain, climate, and natural resources long influenced the culinary destiny of a region or a people. But wars and migrations have also played a role in alimentary changes by introducing new vegetables that have become essential elements in the regional diet, such as the potato, which came with the conquistadors from South America to Europe, or the soybean with the Chinese to Japan. And let's not forget that human history since its beginnings has been marked by food shortages and famine. It doesn't take long for a population to become malnourished through a change in climate or a war: European citizens haven't forgotten the last one—scarcity or even lack of butter, eggs, milk, sugar, meat, coffee, vegetables. More recently, inhabitants of Darfur, Ethiopia, and Somalia have known starvation. Food has settled into the heart of politics through such issues as sustainable development, environment, exchanges between North and South, or genetically modified crops.

As for social "distinction," so dear to the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, nowhere is it manifest with as much consistency as in matters of food, from table manners to food products, and to cooking itself. Globalization has not brought equality. Granted, we eat better, and China, for example, has gone from an endemic quasi-famine to a national diet that in thirty years has caused an average three-inch increase in the height of their children. But everywhere, and most notably in the developed countries, qualitative differences in kinds of food remain—and may even have been exacerbated. From the meal trays on long-distance flights to the "gourmet sections" in supermarkets, not everyone eats first-class. On the one hand, there is "fine cuisine," on the other, "chow." Claiming to be a gastronome is already a distinctive sign of belonging. What is gastronomy if not the fruit of a nineteenth-century collaboration between writers and food professionals to help the bourgeoisie attain a culinary art that until then had been reserved for the nobility? This doesn't mean that members of the middle or lower classes ate less well, but that they ate differently, and more important perhaps, that they talked about it differently. Simply reading restaurant menus is enough to be convinced of this.

* * *

And because vegetables connect us to the earth, to that Mother Earth of whom the ancients spoke, they occupy a very specific place in the history of food, as well as in our imaginations, our myths, our customs, our family heritages. They have long constituted if not the foundation of food, as assured by grain, at least the most elementary part. From picking to gathering-even today, dandelions in the fields, mushrooms in the woods, blackberries along woodland paths—vegetation has sure value, one that guarantees subsistence when one has nothing. Vegetables were at the dawn of humanity; they form the elementary degree of social organization, the passage from the raw to the cooked, from nature to culture, from the stage of gathering to that of cultivation. Humans have tamed vegetables the way they have domesticated animals, by selecting plants and observing the effects of those plants on their bodies. Plants, grains, herbs, and roots follow the beginnings of sedentarization: planning to grow something assumes that one is settling down for the time it takes to plant, allow plants to grow, and harvest the bounty.

The vegetable, like anything that is grown, is associated with time, patience, the rhythm of the seasons. Gardeners know this through experience—an experience that has become a symbol of human existence, as highlighted in Ecclesiastes 3:2: There is "a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted."

There are spring, summer, autumn, and winter vegetables. Just as it takes nine months for a baby to come full term, it takes a certain amount of time for a cabbage to grow, or a tomato to ripen. Chemistry has modified natural development, and it is no coincidence that our civilization of speed, performance, and consumption aims to produce vegetables more rapidly, bigger, more perfect, better balanced-redder tomatoes and greener lettuce, endives whiter than nature intended. Culture is winning over nature.

* * *

Napoleon III was delighted that peas could arrive fresh in Paris thanks to the railroad; thus vegetables also speak to us of space. The space of the vegetable garden: patches marked with strings, impeccable geometry, alignment, order, judicious spatial economy. But also a social space, contrast or even rivalry between villages, or, on the other hand, the exchange of seeds, recipes, and produce, transmitted from generation to generation. When the chain is broken, what happens? Varieties and even species disappear. In wartime, the gap between rural and urban space lessens, yet becomes more manifest. Thus, during World War II, Jerusalem artichokes and rutabagas fed urban populations that no longer had the luxury of potatoes. Surreal vegetable gardens appeared during the bombardment of Berlin in 1945, when women planted a few vegetables in gutted apartments without doors or windows, to stave off starvation. The vegetable thus incarnates life's revenge over death, the triumph of freshness over decay, victory of the rural over the urban.

At the end of the arbor, near the plaster lady, stood a kind of log cabin. Pécuchet stored his tools in it, and there he spent delightful hours husking seeds, writing labels, arranging his little pots. To take a break, he sat on a crate by the door and planned improvements to the garden.

He had made two bushels of geraniums for the foot of the steps. Between the cypresses and the cordons he planted sunflowers. And as the flower beds were covered in buttercups, and all the alleyways in fresh sand, the garden was resplendent with a variety of yellow tones.

But the hotbed was soon crawling with larvae; and despite the insulation of the dead leaves, beneath the painted frame and slathered lids the growth was sickly to behold. The cuttings didn't take; the grafts came undone; the sap in the layers stopped flowing; the trees had white spots on their roots; the seedlings were a desolation. The wind enjoyed flattening the beanstalks. The abundance of sludge ruined the strawberries, the lack of pinching killed the tomatoes.

There was no broccoli, eggplant, turnips, or watercress, which he had tried to grow in a tub. After the thaw, they lost the artichokes. The cabbages were his only consolation. One in particular gave him hope. It blossomed, grew, ended up being huge and absolutely inedible. No matter: Pécuchet was glad to have produced a monster. * GUSTAVE FLAUBERT, Bouvard and Pécuchet, translated by Mark Polizzotti (Dalkey Archive Press, 2005), pp. 28-29

But vegetables also point to the lot of the poor in the social history of food. In the seventeenth century, La Bruyère saw peasants as "wild animals" who "retire at night into their hovels, where they live on black bread, water, and roots." Grain, in whatever form, was the foundation and symbol of poverty, and meat was long a sign of wealth and luxury. Vegetables, if leafy and non-leguminous, were believed not to be nourishing. Unlike grains, they did not leave the body feeling full, close to satiety. Further, for a long time vegetables were gastronomy's poor cousins. They served a useful purpose as side dishes or garnish. They decorated meat, game, or fish, functioning merely as enhancement. For Grimod de La Reynière, author of L'Almanach des gourmands (1803), "the man who is truly worthy of the title of gourmand scarcely views vegetables and fruits except as means to clean his teeth and refresh his mouth, and not as products capable of feeding a hearty appetite." The vegetable is not a noble item; it is humble, ignoble in a literal sense. It is probably for that reason that it figures less in poetry and art (with the exception of still life) than do fruit, flowers, and trees. There is no lyric poetry for vegetables, except in the familiar space of fables, short odes, or burlesque diversions, such as Ronsard's poem dedicated to salad. Metaphors confirm this low status: the French say belle comme une rose, "beautiful as a rose," and bête comme chou, "dumb as cabbage"; un teint de lys, "the complexion of a lily," or une peau de pêche, "skin like a peach," but une mine d'endive ou de navet, "the look of an endive or turnip." Being likened to a gazelle is one thing; to an asparagus, quite another. To call someone a vegetable evokes not the vegetal but the vegetative. As for an important man, he is called, derisively, une grosse legume, "a big vegetable."


    To make this condiment, your poet begs
    The pounded yellow of two hard-boiled eggs;
    Two boiled potatoes, passed through kitchen sieve,
    Smoothness and softness to the salad give.

    Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,
    And, half suspected, animate the whole.
    Of mordant mustard add a single spoon,
    Distrust the condiment that bites so soon;
    But deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault,
    To add a double quantity of salt.

    Four times the spoon with oil from Lucca crown,
    And twice with vinegar procured from town;
    And, lastly, o'er the flavored compound toss
    A magic soupçon of anchovy sauce.

    O green and glorious! O herbaceous treat!
    'Twould tempt the dying anchorite to eat:
    Back to the world he'd turn his fleeting soul,
    And plunge his fingers in the salad bowl!
    Serenely full, the epicure would say,
    "Fate cannot harm me, I have dined to-day."
    * SYDNEY SMITH (1771-1845)

In modern times, the vegetable seems to have become a luxury in developed countries, considered a light choice in contrast to common, stodgy food. On the one hand, we have pastas and "spuds"; on the other, green beans, lettuce, and the like. In other words, noodles go with grub, and lettuce (a metaphor for money in French) with sorrel. On the one hand, there are those who feed; on the other, those who eat; or, to quote Brillat-Savarin again, "Animals feed, man eats; the thinking man alone knows how to eat." But everyone can know how to eat—because knowing how to eat can be learned.

So today, the fight against poor eating habits begins with vegetables.

* * *

In the collective consciousness, vegetables are associated with diets and austerity. For Rabelais or Rousseau, they were the key to a balanced and sober eating plan. We find them in the maternal or medical commands "Eat your spinach," "Eat your veggies if you want to grow tall," and in the recommendation to eat five servings of vegetables a day to limit the risk of cancer or cardiovascular disease. And so vegetables are considered to be utilitarian, not pleasurable, classified with dietetics and not with gastronomy, with rational adulthood and not childhood delights. They are contrasted with the regressive food that fills lazy stomachs. Obesity is a social marker: a sign of wealth in the past when many never had enough to eat; but in our Western societies, where slenderness is an aesthetic goal, obesity preys on the less fortunate. Too many people eat fatty foods, with an excess of salt or sugar, glucides or lipids—snack foods, prepared meats, chocolate bars, fast food, chips, T V dinners, pizza, panini, greasy hero sandwiches, mayonnaise, ketchup. Children are overfed, stuffing themselves at any hour of the day following the principle of instant gratification, and thus growing fat. Many adolescents, too, fall onto that path of easy access, which is perhaps even more disturbing. Recent figures indicate that one out of four teenagers in France is threatened by obesity.

Vegetables, fretful vegetables. I think of those women whose lives have slipped away in the shadow of your peels, and the knife shone, dancing, in their hands. Vegetables, your sad colors, your peels, your texture. I certainly would not mince the salsify of reproaches, the rutabaga of you-see-what-I-means, the turnip of endless excuses, the radish, the radish. I will leave the tomato-faced objections, the artichoke-heart quibbles, the squash squeals, the complete critical horseradish, to the molds. * LOUIS ARAGON, Treatise on Style, translated by Alyson Waters, p. 107

And vegetables demand that we take our time with them. They have to be bought, peeled, washed, cut up, cooked. They wilt, darken, soften, rot. To prepare them takes time, attention, creativity. But those are the very reasons why they can be a source of pleasure and not just a necessity.

* * *

For vegetables don't simply connect us to the land that produced them; they also grow on the enriched land of our affective memories: a mother's leek soup, an aunt's artichoke and bean tagine, a grandmother's stuffed cabbage, the lentils in the school cafeteria. Each one of us has our own evocative memories, those flavors that speak to our hearts. Vegetables belong to what is intimate, family cooking, home traditions. They are not fancy but comforting—carrots, turnips, and leeks simmering in the soup pot, jam bubbling in the preserving pan, an apple pie in the oven.

To speak of vegetables, then, is to travel in search of a territory, a culture; it is to rediscover the traces of a history that weaves in and out of the etymology of a word, the travels of a plant from one region to another, from one country to another, from one symbolic realm to another (why do carrots make you likable, and why are children born in the cabbage patch?); from a vegetable garden to a poem; from a painting to a market woman pushing her cart though the streets of Paris while yelling the praises of her fresh lettuce; from a song to a conquistador bringing back seedlings and new condiments in the hold of his caravel. It is to travel through space and time, from the collective to what is most intimate; it is to intersect our knowledge and our questions, our experiences, our curiosity. In the shell of a pea, in the seeds of a tomato, in radish tops that we toss away without a thought, treasures are hiding.

Indeed, vegetables are not as vegetative as we might think. They are born, they live, and they die. Modestly, discreetly, perhaps since the dawn of time, they represent the most fertile encounter between nature and culture.


Excerpted from VEGETABLES by Evelyne Bloch-Dano Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Evelyne Bloch-Dano is the author of many books, including Madame Proust: A Biography, which is also published by the University of Chicago Press. Teresa Lavender Fagan has translated many books, including J. M. G. Le Clezio’s The Mexican Dream.

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