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Food in the 'Hood

The Celery Cure — Part II

 

Part I recounted the transformation of celery from an herb to a garden vegetable.

So familiar to us today, celery was for a long time an uncommon vegetable in many American households. In the late 19th century, immigrants from Holland pioneered its entry into a national market. Hailing from a land with a long tradition of celery farming, Dutch farmers started growing the crop in the “mucklands” — the moist fields of Kalamazoo, the “celery city” — and its environs. The wet soils, like those of the Netherlands, were ideal for the crop. “They come from a country reclaimed from the sea bed, protected by dykes and dredged by ditches,” a Michigan celery grower put it. “Unlike the American, the Hollander delights to work this low wet land.”

The farmers worked the soil as it had been done in their homeland. Wearing “klompers,” wooden shoes with tight metal rims somewhat like snow shoes, they trod through the earth. Their horses were also fitted with wide wooden shoes to keep them from sinking into the mud. “I’ve seen horses go down clear up to their belly,” Bob Greendyke, the son of an early celery farmer recalled.

The immigrants toiled 12 to 16 hours a day. “It’s no genteel, light work or child’s play,” Frank Little, a Michigan celery historian, wrote. The immigrants waded into swamps and turned them into fertile ground. Trenches were dug to drain off excess water from the flat lands. The labor, Little added, was a “long and violent, or rather patient wrestling with many and sundry tamarack stumps, above ground and below.”

Their large families were an asset to the Dutch farmers. “Families sometimes arrived in the fields as early as two in the morning and worked until about 7:00 a.m., moving through moonlight as they lifted the blanching boards and set them out as planks to walk on, jammed their knives into the earth and sliced the celery at the roots,” journalist Judith Lin observed. Their strong Calvinist work ethic intensified their efforts. The newcomers willingly cultivated fields that local farmers shunned. “American farmers had little use for this poorly drained land, and thus . . . sizeable acreages remained idle awaiting development,” sociologists John Jakle and James Wheeler pointed out.

Following the European method, Dutch farmers were blanching their celery to produce a “white” or “yellow” variety. They were in pursuit of a vegetable sweeter and more tender than the green version. Pale yellow, Wall Street Journal reporter Mark Russell noted in a 1985 article, was the “ideal color” for Americans in an earlier era.

Kalamazoo celery soon reached a broader audience. Vendors began selling bunches on the street corners of the “Celery City.” Salesmen climbed on trains stopping in Kalamazoo and offered passengers the novel item. A new railway snack was born. The fame of the city’s product spread. “Fresh as dew from Kalamazoo,” the celery was snapped up by restaurant and hotel kitchens. They featured it prominently on their menus.

Health conscious Americans were also turning to celery for invigoration and for a solution to their maladies. Kalamazoo was in the forefront of merchandizing celery palliatives. Kalamazoo Celery and Sarsparilla Compound was touted as a cure for “fever . . . all forms of nervousness, headaches, and neuralgia . . . and female complaints.”

Kalamazoo’s mania mirrored the country’s celery enthusiasm. An 1897 Sears and Roebuck catalog advertised a celery brew as a “great nerve builder.”

An array of other items produced in the “Dutch City” traded on the vegetable’s appeal. Kalamazoo Celery and Pepsin Chewing Gum, Celery Tar Soap, and celery pickles were among the products produced there.

Across America companies were concocting celery drinks to quench the thirst for an effervescent, healthy beverage. Regional bottlers marketed celery phosphate, celery cream, celery and iron, and a variety of other sodas. James Mayfield, a partner of the Coca-Cola inventor John Pemberton, opened a Celery-Cola facility in Birmingham, Alabama in 1899. The drink was soon distributed nationally.

Lake’s Celery, a drink created in Jackson, Mississippi in 1887, was a special favorite of writer Eudora Welty. In her short story, “The Little Store,” Welty remembers as a child riding her bike to purchase the treat on summer afternoons. “You drank in the premises, with feet set wide apart to minimize the drip.” The celery’s name, she said, was self-evident. “What else could it be called? It was made by a Mr. Lake out of celery.”

Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda is a survivor of this celery-mad era. The brainchild, the story goes, of a Dr. Brown from the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, the drink was first manufactured in 1869. The physician, the story goes, created a tonic infused with celery seeds, seltzer, and sugar to nurture sick children

Sold in trademark green bottles, the refreshment gained a fervent following in Jewish delis, where customers relished it as a foil to pastrami, corned beef, and other briny, spicy fare. “Generation after generation was weaned on this stuff,” company vice president Harry Gold pointed out. Columnist Walter Winchell dubbed it “Jewish Champagne.”

As its ethnic devotees dispersed from their old neighborhoods, so did this talismanic soda. Transplants from Jewish enclaves clamored for the drink.“With them they take their tradition, with the tradition comes the deli,” Alice O’Leary, an advertising account executive for the company in the 1970s, observed. Posters advertising the product played on these yearnings: “Imported from the old neighborhood,” one said. “We missed you too.” Dr. Brown’s promised “prompt, temporary relief of the minor pain of nostalgia,” the company advertised.

Recent devotees of the drink know little of its former medicinal allure. In the 1920s, the F.D.A. forced the company to change its label. The government feared that customers would mistake the product for a pain-relieving elixir. Once marketed as a “tonic,” it is sold as a soda today.

Another celery center was growing up in an unlikely location, a hardscrabble section of Florida. Like the Kalamazoo growers, the innovators were immigrants. Andrew Duda and other Slovak Lutherans fled religious persecution in the Austro-Hungarian empire in the the early 20th century for America. In 1912, Andrew settled in Cleveland, where he and fellow ethnic ethnics worked in factories and on truck farms. The newcomers, many of whom were former farmers, soon tired of city life. They dreamed of forging a self-sufficient community united by their faith. “Let’s take our children on the farms where there will be less temptation of the world and the wickedness of the large city,” one émigré longed. Hearing of vacant land in Florida on which they could plant vegetables, Andrew and several other Slovak adventurers set out for Seminole County in central Florida, a few miles northeast of Orlando.

Once planted with citrus, the land had been abandoned when the orange crop was decimated by severely cold weather. Hoping to find bountiful acreage, they instead discovered a harsh area of thick woodlands and wetlands. Joseph Mikler, one of the early arrivals, expressed his bitter disappointment: “It was cold, there was water everywhere. My wife had expected warm weather and groves of oranges. But there was nothing, only woods.”

The only buildings to live in were old shacks that had once housed sawmill and turpentine workers. Paul Wehr, who chronicled the history of Slavia, the name the farmers gave to their community, described the conditions: “The shacks . . . were equally divided between boards and cracks and served not so much to keep out the cold and rain as to delay their passage.” To make ends meet, Andrew Duda worked as a lumberman, dragging cypress logs out of swamps with the help of mules and oxen. He tried to grow celery but returned to Cleveland in 1916 after his efforts failed. His plan was to save enough to eventually return to Florida to buy land.

Andrew returned 10 years later and bought a 40-acre plot. The early years were arduous and brutal. The muckland had to be cleared and the soil tilled with a plow and mule. The effort paid off. Celery, it seemed, flourished in the damp soil and cool climate. “Celery used to grow like crazy in the muck,” Karen Jacobs, the coordinator of the Museum of Seminole County History, observed. By 1930, Florida was turning out a third of the country’s commercial celery crop.

With the help of his three sons, Andrew brought out his first celery cash crop in 1926. From these early seeds, the Duda celery business sprouted. Duda Farm Fresh Foods, which markets the Dandy brand and a host of other celery products, rose to become America’s largest producer of this crop.

By World War II, farmers growing celery in Calfornia were overtaking Florida and Michigan growers in rhe industry. Celery farming increasingly concentrated in the Golden State, whose attractive soil, climate, and large tracts of land gave it an edge. Once typically a fall vegetable, celery could now be grown year round in California for a national market. Supermarket chains, which pressed growers for a reliable annual supply of celery, accelerated this trend. Duda now grows most of its celery in California.

Along the way, greener celery began replacing the blanched vegetable. Vulnerable to fungus, the latter variety also demanded a costly, labor-intensive process. Consumers loved the color. This product, they were convinced, was healthier than its predecessor

Deep green celery developed gradually over several decades of research and breeding. Hybridization, Duda breeder Larry Pierce notes, produced celery varieties of “mixed blood.” Gradually, a true green plant was perfected. The earlier pale green or yellow green celery started to disappear from the grocery store. The new breed was so intensely green that its stalks could not even be blanched white.

Older shoppers were not so quick to embrace the novel item. “Why does no one grow white celery anymore,” a typical message to Duda read. The skeptics, breeder Pierce discovered, had used celery primarily for making soup. The “mellow,” less stringy celery he was developing was less suitable for their purposes.

Duda has relentlessly responded to and molded consumer preferences. Capitalizing on its extensive seed research program, the company is bringing ever new varieties to market. Alert to shoppers’ desire for quick, ready-to-eat vegetables, Duda sells packs of celery sticks and markets sliced and diced celery. “Convenience is king,” Greg Tirado, plant manager of the firm’s facility in Oxnard, observed about the “fresh cut” business. Hotels and restaurants are attractive targets for the company. Pierce devised the Dandy Celery Straw, a stalk with a hollow center. The swizzle stick is aimed at Bloody Mary drinkers.

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Thirsty for Celery

A.M. Wine Shoppe (2122 18th St., NW; 202-506-2248) carries Green Hat Gin, a liquor made by New Columbia Distillers, a local company. One of the “botanicals” in the gin is celery seed.

The recently opened DGS Delicatessen (1317 Conn. Ave., 202-293-4400) sells Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda.

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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