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  • Food in the 'Hood

    The “Lascivious” Leaf: The Allure of Arugula

    What would people think of me, I remembered, when I first began trying arugula? It seems like ancient history now, but there was a time when there was a stigma attached to the rarefied leaf. Consuming arugula marked you as an elitist, an effete snob. During his first campaign, President Obama was mocked for a mere reference to it.

    How did this once plebeian plant become sophisticated? In earlier civilizations, rocket (its English name) was hardly the fashionable garden plant of today. It was more like an herb, whose sharp flavor was inseparable from its reputed healing and erotic powers. Known in Latin as eruca, from the word for “harsh, rough,” the plant is a member of the mustard family. Native to the Mediterranean, it was an unruly weed that was foraged from the fields by the poor. Arugula and bread made a simple peasant meal.

    Rocket, whose leaves and seeds contain a peppery mustard oil, was said to have a fiery, potent nature. The Romans, who eventually cultivated the plant, extracted the oil. They savored its leaves accented with pepper and cumin and dressed with garum, a fermented fish sauce.

    The literati extolled rocket as a sexual stimulant. “If those leaves of wild rocket, picked with left hand, are pounded and drunk in honey water, they serve as aphrodisiac,” the naturalist Pliny wrote. To Ovid, the Roman poet, the plant was “lascivious.”

    The herb offered a multitude of benefits, other commentators said. “Rocket, eaten in a rather large quantity, arouses to intercourse; its seed has the same effect,” the Greek physician Dioscorides stated. “It is diuretic, digestive, and good for the bowel. They also use the seed as a flavoring in cooked dishes.”

    Rocket was sacred to Priapus, the Graeco-Roman god of fertility. Beds of the greens were planted around his statue. The leaf, the Roman author Columnella wrote, honored the deity: “Th’eruca, Priapus, near thee we sow, To arouse to duty husbands who are slow.”

    The people of the Biblical Holy Land also ascribed virtues to rocket. “One of them went out into the field to gather ‘oroth,’” the Book of Kings said using another ancient name for the plant. At this time, rocket was appreciated as a spice and also as a digestive, deodorant, and remedy for eye infections.

    While rocket was regarded as a “hot” plant, lettuce was its polar opposite. To achieve an emotional balance, food historian Margaret Visser points out, the Romans paired the feminine, chillier lettuce with the masculine, libidinous arugula. A cousin of rocket, watercress was given a similar role. Called nasturtium or “nostril torment” by the Romans, watercress was thought to be an invigorating herb. The Greeks, Visser points out, suggested to the “dull and sluggish” that they “eat cress.” Convinced that watercress was a tonic, the Greek general Xenophon insisted that his troops eat it.

    As rocket was transplanted to new lands, its fame traveled with it. In 12th century Islamic Spain, syrups were enlivened with ground seeds from the plant.

    In Europe, where the Church forbade growing the sensual herb in monastic gardens, herbalists enthusiastically embraced it. The “seasoning leaf,” as they called it, imparted strength and vigor. “Whoever taketh the seed of Rocket before he be whipt, shall be so hardened that he shall easily endure the paines,” John Gerard declared in his 16th century Herball. His contemporary, the herbalist William Turner, recommended rocket as an aid “against the bitings of the shrew mouse and other venomous beasts.”

    Lettuce remained relegated to the frigid domain. It was a “cold and moist pot-herbe,” herbalist Gerard wrote. Hotter, more bitter greens would revitalize the body. “Water-cress potage is a good remedy to cleanse the blood in the Spring . . . and consumes the gross humours winter hath left,” 17th century physician Nicholas Culpepper said.

    Italy was the culture most avid about rocket and other wild greens. Vendors in 14th century Florence sold greens topped on toasted bread. The racy fascination with rocket (rucola or rughetta in Italian) persisted. Seventeenth century physician M. Pietro Andrea Mattioli observed that arugula “augments sperm and provokes men to coitus.”

    Rocket continued to be a staple of the poor Italian’s diet. Fava faglie (“beans and greens”), mashed fava beans mixed with greens and flavored with olive oil, was a common repast. Rocket has gradually been assimilated into Italian cuisine and has lost its exclusive association with the peasantry. Today it might fill a frittata, adorn a pasta, or infuse a ravioli.

    The plant, which some suggest was first grown in the U.S. by the Puritan colonists, has come out of the wilderness in the last 20 years. Rocket, its English name taken by the early settlers, has given way to arugula. Botanists now call arugula a “specialty leaf vegetable.” It soon acquired cachet among upscale diners. Once unfamiliar and alien, arugula has almost become commonplace. We are no longer thrilled by the “lascivious” leaf.

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    Appetite for Arugula?

    At A.M. Wine Shoppe (2122 18th St., NW; 202-506-2248), arugula is one of the many intriguing items used to flavor foods that is available at this combination delicatessen, charcuterie, and wine store in Adams-Morgan. Baby arugula is an ingredient on its pan bagnat (Italian tuna, olive paste, roasted peppers), the egg salad, and turkey club (avocado, bacon, red onion) sandwiches.

    At Pizza Paradiso (2002 P St., NW; 202-223-1245), baby arugula is one of the many diverse toppings that can be had on this Dupont Circle restaurant’s pizzas. Its salad, Insalata Paradiso, brings together baby arugula, goat cheese, sweet red pepper, mushrooms, and pine nuts.

     

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    Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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