11 August 2014 04:12PM
Mark Scherzer

Well, I have a surprise for you, so brace yourselves: the cucumber is not a vegetable.

Technically, it ‘s an “associated fruit,” ehivh puts it in the same class as tomatoes, squash and other flowering vegetables. There are vegetables that flower and the fruit comes from the flower, as with cucumbers, while there are vegetables, for instance, broccoli that fruit and then flower, or as we say, go to seed.

It is how things begin to grow, not how we use them that is the crucial criterion for classification. but since most people (including me until recently) think of the cucumber as a vegetable and use it as such, I’ll join the consensus and include it in my series of vegetable bulletins.

Another surprise is the long, well documented history of the cucumber. Depending on which source you use, the cucumber originated in western Asia, either in the Middle East or India from an early variety, Cucumis hystrix. It is known to have been in cultivation for over 3,000 years. (For much of the historical information I am indebted to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cucumber)

People are described eating cucumbers as far back as the legend of Gilgamesh, and by Jews in Egypt prior to their dramatic departure in the Exodus. (Mark wonders if, as slaves they were eating “full sour” pickles.)

According to Pliny the Elder, in The Natural History, the ancient Greeks grew cucumbers, there were different varieties in Italy and Africa, and the Roman Emperor Tiberius had cucumbers on his table at all seasons. Apparently his court gardeners kept him supplied year round by using various artificial methods, including planting beds in carts with wheels by which the cucumber plants could be moved to take full advantage of the sun; and, in winter, they grew in cold frames glazed with mirrorstone or oiled cloth. His enthusiasm for cucumbers is matched only by Catherine de Medici’s for spinach.

According to Pliny, Romans are reported to have had other than gustatory uses for cucumbers—as a treatment for scorpion bites and bad eyesight, and, oddly, to scare away mice. And here is a really resourceful Roman use (apparently inspired by the phallic shape of the cucumber): women wishing for children wore them around their waists, while midwives also carried them, only to throw them away when a child was born.

As usual, with the spread of most vegetables, northern Europe was very slow to pick up on the crops of the Mediterranean basin. It was not until the 8th to 9th centuries that Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, had cucumbers growing in his garden, and not ’till the 14th century that they finally reached England. Somehow they were soon lost, and had to be reintroduced 250 years later. A long time to go without cucumber sandwiches! The Spanish obviously had cucumbers by the 15th Century, as it is known that Christopher Columbus brought cucumbers to Hispaniola in 1494.

The very odd thing about the progress of the cucumber is that when the French and the English began their colonization of the northern American territories in the 16th and 17th centuries, they found that the cucumber had beaten them to it. Jacques Cartier, the French explorer, was surprised to find very large cucumbers growing in what was to become Montreal, while the English were equally surprised to find the Iroquois happily cultivating their cucumber patches.And with westward expansion in the next centuries, the explorers and settlers of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains were to find the tribes there, particularly the Mandan Indians of the Dakotas, quite adept at growing cucumbers.

Apparently the Spanish had begun introducing cucumber seeds, as well as melon seeds, to native Americans in the 18th century, and the indigenous American population took a liking to the cucumber in a way the more cautious European populatiosn did not, resulting in the cultivation of cucumbers throught the Americas in record time.

But the progress of the cucumber was not without its reversals. While the Reverend Francis Higginson’s 1640 book, New England’s Plantation included cucumbers as one of the garden vegetables, by the late 17th century, a prejudice against uncooked vegetables and fruits developed in the colonies, the belief being that uncooked plants brought on summer diseases and should be forbidden to children. The cucumber’s reputation subsequently declined to the point that it was sometimes described as being “fit only for cows.”

Perhaps this prejudice emanated in part from the Mother Country. For instance, Samuel Pepys, whose diary never missed a thing, wrote on August 22, 1663, “…Sir W. Tatten tells me that Mr. Newburne is dead of eating cowcumber, of which the other day I heard of another, I think.” William Satchell in the same period notes that “Te Moanaroa was dead–of a surfeit of cucumbers– having eaten four of the prickly melons.”

But the pendulum soon swung back again, and the cucumber returned to favor–not unlike the fate of the egg in our time. Indeed, by the mid 20th century, these prickly fruits had even obtained a measure of glamour, gracing the eyelids of many Hollywood starlets, turbaned and bathrobed, as they underwent their beauty treatments. Apparently, the flavenoids and antioxidants in cucumbers do work to reduce puffiness and inflammation under the eyes. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/16/puffy-eyes-undereyes-cucumbers-cures-remedies_n_1964329.html.) Bette Davis was a particular fan of cucumbers, depending on them to help her maintain her signature wide-eyed appearance. There is no evidence, however, that any Hollywood starlet ever wore cucumbers around her waist.

Turkana Farms is, of course, continuing the three thousand year tradition of the cucumber, and, in fact, we currently have a surfeit of them, both the slicing and pickling kind. Use them, dear reader, in salads, on their own dribbled with lemon juice and salt, chop them fine and mix them with yoghurt, crushed garlic, dill and salt (Turkish cacik), make pickles or white gazpacho or cucumber ketchup, or treat yourself to a rejuvenating eye patch. Even wear them around your waist if you have to. Scare your mice.

Mark and I are hoping you will not miss out on this historical vegetable (or “associated fruit”) now at its peak, and find yourself in the august company of the Emperors Tiberius and Charlemagne.

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