In the interest of cutting back meat consumption, my eye is easily caught these days by pretty shiny things, like the image above, but even more so by rich description, especially when the history of a food is illuminated. This brief history of one root vegetable, accompanied by a couple of beautiful photos, led me to the book below right. Click the book image to go to the source.
The original is in a collection akin to the one where Seth did his History honors thesis, and akin to the one where some of my doctoral dissertation‘s historic data was sourced (if you are a Cornell geek or library geek scroll upward from the cover page to see the details). Thanks to Helen Rosner once again brilliantly for getting me exploring:
The Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin was born in Basel in 1560, and he dedicated his life to obsessively cataloguing the vegetable world. To present-day historians, he’s notable primarily for his botanical thesaurus “Pinax Theatri Botanici” (“An Illustrated Exposition of Plants”), published in 1623. But, among cooks, he’s sometimes recalled for his lesser work, published in 1620: “Prodromos Theatri Botanici” (“Prologue to the Exposition of Plants”), a compendium of flora in which he describes a plant with vivid yellow flowers, a spray of leaves, and massive, hairy roots “more or less similar to those of turnip or carrots.” It was a specimen that had never before appeared in any scientific list of plants: the rutabaga.
The annals of botany abound with claims that Bauhin was not only rutabaga’s biographer but also its inventor: that he found it growing wild and domesticated it; that he was a civic-minded scientist seeking a cold-resistant turnip to feed his chilly countrymen and not (more likely) a monomaniacal scholar who spent his life ensconced in an herbarium, scrivening endless latinate lists of plant names. “The turnip is older than history,” the caption on a color plate in a 1949 issue of National Geographic declares. “The rutabaga almost modern.” In fact, the vegetable has been around at least since ancient-Roman times, when the naturalist Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century, described an edible root “between a radish and a rape”—meaning the plant from which rapeseed oil derives, which is a cultivar of the same species. Bauhin writes that in his time the vegetable was widely grown in “the cold Noric fields of Bohemia,” where it was eaten pickled or mashed and was called simply “root” by its cultivators. Continue reading