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  • Food in the 'Hood

    The Celery Cure – Part 1

     

    It was not always a delicious garden vegetable. Long before breeders transformed the plant, celery was prized for its aromatic qualities and for its health-giving properties. In the ancient world, it was picked because of its strong scent and bitter taste. The Greeks and Romans valued the herb’s seeds, leaves, and stalks. Wild celery, which is known as smallage, was notable for its fibrous texture and thin, hollow stalks.

    A member of the fragrant umbelliferae family, which includes coriander, parsley, fennel, and other plants bearing parasols of flowers, celery was named for its distinctive qualities. The words for celery in Greek and Latin echoed terms for crispness and bitterness. Celery’s name, some suggest, may also have been a generic one affixed to plants that grew in a swampy location. In The Iliad, Homer pictured horses nibbling on celery leaves and shoots in the marshes of Troy. The plant loved the wet soil near the sea. Wild celery drank in the moisture from the salty marshes and tidal flats in its native Mediterranean. Celery’s crispness derives from this affinity for water.

    Later, when taxonomists classified celery, they gave it an evocative name, apium graveolens. Apium, or “liked by bees,” refers to the powerful attraction its white flowers have for insects. Graveolens, or “heavily scented,” also highlighted celery’s fragrance.

    In early civilizations, celery was popular as a tangy condiment. Greeks perked up wine with crushed celery seeds. Apicius, the Roman gourmet, recommended garnishing sauces with its leaves. Sprinkled over fish, ground celery seeds, he noted, enhanced their flavor. The Roman author Columnella suggested pickling celery stems with vinegar and wine.

    The ill, it was thought, would also benefit from the herb. A diuretic described by Hippocrates was a vinegary solution of celery, water, and honey. Crowns of wild celery, the Roman poet Horace wrote, prevented hangovers. Roman banqueters wore these leafy crowns to keep from being intoxicated. The Persians came to believe that the vapor of celery seed oil was a remedy for headaches.

    Celery was often hung in the rooms of Greeks with severe illnesses. The plant was also reputed to help the dead. Romans wore wreathes of celery leaves at funerals, and the plant adorned Greek tombs. Celery’s strong, potent fragrance, some think, made it especially appealing for funereal settings.

    Celery also honored the might and valor of the living. The mythic hero, Hercules, according to the Roman author Pliny, wore a crown woven of olive fronds, willows, and celery to salute his prowess. Celery was an obvious ornament for feasts, festivals, and victory celebrations. Great achievements were marked by invocations of this botanic symbol. When the Greeks founded a city for their capital in Sicily, they called it Selenium or Celery City. Selenium’s coins were decorated with celery leaves.

    In medieval Europe, celery retained its reputation as a medicinal herb. Apothecaries prescribed wild celery as a diuretic and a laxative. Boiled celery leaves made a handy poultice. Writing in the 16th century, English herbalist John Gerard saw little culinary, but much curative, use for the plant: “Water Parsley . . . is seldom eaten, neither is it counted good for sauce, but it is profitable for medicine.” The English name for the herb reflected these beliefs. The Latin root of celery conveys something that is “quick acting.” This is a likely reference to its role as a speedy remedy.

    Celery was also invested with erotic powers. Love potions made from celery juice had a strong following. Giacomo Castelvetro, a 17th century Italian refugee in London, pointed out celery’s ability to stimulate the sexual appetites: “It is warm and has great digestive and generative powers, and for this reason young wives often serve celery to their elderly or impotent husbands.” The aphrodisiac was also favored for its more general invigorating capacity. Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century English herbalist, described wild celery as “one of the herbs which is eaten in the spring, to sweeten and purify the blood.”

    By the 17th century, the first halting steps were being taken, mostly by anonymous gardeners, to remake celery and to transform it from an intensely pungent herb into a tender vegetable. They gradually domesticated wild celery, selecting more desirable types and breeding them. The focus now was less on the aromatic leaves and seeds than on improving the stalks. Thicker solid stalks started to replace the thinner, hollow stems. The vegetable was becoming fleshier and less stringy.

    Crucial to these changes was the technique of blanching, or whitening, celery. If its stalks could be sheltered from the sun, horticulturists figured, the vegetable would lose its bitterness. When soil was piled around it, a whiter, more appetizing celery would no doubt emerge. In Italy, where the blanching process was first developed, “in early autumn the celery plants are dug up and earthed up close together in a trench,” the writer Castelvetro observed. “Showing about four fingers above the earth,” the plants are “left for fifteen to twenty days. They will then have blanched and become good to eat.”

    Blanching was perfected by La Quintinye, Louis XIV’s gardener at Versailles. From the kitchen gardens, white, succulent celery sprang up that royal cooks preferred to the green, more bitter variety. Celery would capture the fancy of European gastronomers. Castelvetro praised it as a digestive. Raw stalks seasoned with salt and pepper, he wrote, made a nice after-dinner refreshment. Domesticated celery, English botanist John Ray contended, was superior in flavor to its wild ancestor. The vegetable “becomes milder and less ungrateful, whence in Italy and France the leaves and stalks are esteemed as delicacies, eaten with oil and pepper.”

    As salads came into vogue in Europe, celery was promoted as a choice ingredient. “Our Winter Sallets are likewise greatly improved by blanch’d Sellery, which is an hot herb,” English horticulturalist Richard Bradley observed. John Evelyn, the English vegetable connoisseur, extolled the “high and graceful taste” of celery that had been peeled and sliced and dressed with “Oyl, Vinegar, Salt, and Peper.”

    Evelyn proclaimed that celery, once “a stranger with us,” deserved a prominent position in the homes of gentlemen. In America, celery enjoyed a lofty status among the well-to-do many years before it became a supermarket staple. During the Gilded Age after the Civil War, celery, food writer Rebecca Rupp points out, was displayed on the dining tables of the rich in “towering” glass or silver vases.

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    Celery Bites

    Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray, a celery soda that was once marketed as “tonic,” gained its early fame in Jewish delis as a soothing accompaniment to rich and spicy sandwiches. The drink can be purchased at Loeb’s NY Deli (1712 I St., NW; 202-965-5632).

    Sami Antoine, manager and soup maestro at Soho Tea and Coffee (2150 P St., NW; 202-463-7646), prepares his signature vegetable soups with ample chunks of celery. Antoine considers celery an indispensable ingredient in these dishes. I recently savored chewy, tasty pieces of celery in a peppery vegetable creation of his.

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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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