My niece, who visited over the weekend, noted that it was Super Vegetable Week and asked me how this distinguished the present week from the other 51 in my year. “Are you going to post something about dessert today, to reward everyone for all the vegetable stuff?” she asked me. She likes dessert, possibly slightly more than she likes vegetables, a viewpoint which may be reflected in the little snippet of dialogue I have just quoted for you. I have a strong feeling that what I am about to offer you is not the kind of dessert she means, but it is the right dessert for Vegetable Week, in my opinion.
I have been reading Elizabeth David lately, specifically her book about Christmas food, for no particular reason other than it was the one they had at the library and I thought it might have something in it about vegetables in winter. It did.
If you already know all about Elizabeth David, skip this next part and go straight to the excerpt I have excerpted for you below.
If you wonder who she is, I will tell you in the briefest possible terms that she was by her own description a “British cookery journalist,” a food writer of astonishing historical knowledge whose proper tone and decisive manner make me feel as though I have a slightly alarming but fascinating governess in the kitchen with me. David, who died in 1992, lived a wildly unconventional and adventurous life and is credited with nothing less than entirely renovating British food. “She taught us we could do better with what we had,” said Jane Grigson, who is no slouch herself and also worth a google in your spare time.
In her tone, David is kind of Margaret Thatcher meets Mary Poppins–no nonsense tolerated, lots of adventures to tell you about, breezy instructions that must be followed to the letter or certain ruin will follow, and no time for your peevish questions about the details. “If here and there in my account of a cookery journalist’s Christmases a note of desperation is clearly audible, I don’t make apologies. Christmas, at any rate the way we are supposed to celebrate it nowadays, does tend to unbalance people,” she says in her introduction. This either makes it clear why it’s kind of tempting to just re-type the whole book here for you, or makes you glad that I don’t plan to.
With the stern self-control any governess would expect, I am going to limit myself to one story. Thinking about how unnatural it seems to truck vegetables in from other climates for several months of the year had me wondering what people in cold climates ate in this season before such dubious and seemingly irresistible wonders were possible. David quotes from a book in her vast collection (which is now housed at Harvard and seems worth a pilgrimage) called The Complete English Gardener, written by a fellow named Samuel Cooke and published in 1760. It seems the unwillingness to live through winter without salad has some historical roots.
“We have in the conservatory some artichoaks preserved in the sand. There are several sorts of cabbages, and their sprouts, for boiling; asparagus upon hot-beds; and if diligence has been used, you may find some cucumbers, of the plants that were sown in July and August.
“We have this month on the hot-bed sallads of small herbs, with mint, tarragon, burnet, cabbage-lettuce preserved under glasses, and some cresses and chervil upon the natural ground, with which high taste helps the sallads of this season. To these may be added blanched celery and endive.
“There are variety of herbs for soups and the kitchen use, such as sage, thyme, beet-leaves, parsley, sorrel, spinach, cellery, and leeks…Likewise sweet marjoram, dried marigold flowers, and dried mint…”
He writes about forcing peas in a cold frame and coaxing cherries from the December trees and what types of apples are left (Ambret! Colmar!) and generally makes you wonder how a culture known–until David galloped in to rescue them–for boiling everything until it was grey could have sprung from such concern for year-round access to flavorful tender greens. It’s good to know the craving for high taste and sallads of the season connects us over time, even if our present methods could bear some adjusting.
No more peevish focus on vegetables alone–back to regularly scheduled programming now.