Everything Old is New Again: Take Two
August 3, 2014
Researching the Gourmet memoir, I keep encountering such surprising little tidbits I can't resist passing them on.
When I wrote about celtuce a couple of weeks ago, I got so many questions about this Chinese stem lettuce, and so many requests for recipes. Clearly it's a vegetable that's completely new to Americans.
Or so I thought. But then I came upon this, from an early issue of Gourmet Magazine.
From Food Flashes April 1942
"Celtuce" is a new vegetable announced this spring by the W. Atlee Burpee Company, seed growers of Philadelphia…The seeds of this strange plant were sent to David Burpee three years ago by a friend, young missionary Carter D. Holton, located in Shun Wa Kansu near the Tibet border. "Here's a new vegetable for you to try on your farms," Dr. Holton wrote. "The Chinese think it's wonderful. They eat the young leaves raw, and when the plant matures, the stalks are peeled of their tough outer skin and heart part is used like celery or asparagus…."
The article talks about how farmers in Pennsylvania, California, and Arizona are growing this new vegetable. And in 1942, for the first time, seeds were available for home gardeners; price, 15 cents a packet…
"..Celtuce vinaigrette was served this spring at the festive dinner Lucius Boomer, president of the Waldof-Astoria, gives annually to the hotel and night club managers of New York City. This dinner is always the best that the Waldorf knows how to prepare, and that celtuce made the menu says a lot for its goodness."
This is celtuce, partly peeled.
And this is celtuce, peeled, sliced and par-boiled, ready to be stir-fried.
The question is: what happened? Why did celtuce disappear from America for the next 70 years? I'm going to try to find out…..
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My name is Matt Mattus, a plantsman and author working on a book about raising vegetables (Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening, 2018, Cool Springs Press). I came across your post about celtuce and after growing a few crops over many years, and researching its past, I came across your post and just found your fascinating discovering of its use just after the Burpee company reintroduced it (the Waldorf story). I’d like to include part of this story in my book but rather than pull out my aunt’s rather complete collection of bound issues (not sure they even go back to 1942, but certainly to the late 40’s), I feel that it would be best and right to mention that you discovered this in your research. Is that OK?
Also, I am writing you to see if you continued your research on celtuce? I’ve been able to find the source of the first introduction into North America (via France) in 1896 (field tested in 1895 and first offered in 1897 in Dreer’s Garden Calendar of 1897), but I’ve been wondering if early Chinese immigrants may have been growing it as a crop in California or the Vancouver area before then? It never seemed to move into the 1888 catalogs however, so I questioned what happened to those farmers in California that the Gourmet article suggests were growing it, did? Wondering if you discovered anything else since then?
On a related note, I live in Worcester, MA where there is a large Asian community. A new restaurant opened up last year called Red Pepper which caters to primarily the Asian population as well as students and faculty in the area. The menu is mostly in Mandarin, as are the specials which I have to ask a wait staff to translate. This was the first restaurant where I’ve been able to order Stem Lettuce year round, and it is delicious, but mostly a texture delight – crispy, jade-like as you know and addictive. I’ve found seeds for 2 red-leaved varieties in China as well as 5 other named selections. The variety most often found in large Asian markets around here is a very thick stemmed type, I am not sure where it is grown but the stems are nearly 3 inches in diameter. OK, enough geeking out about Celtuce or Stem Lettuce (other than the fact that the Oxford Companion to food suggests that the early ancestors of stem lettuce contained a white, bitter latex which had narcotic traits – not as strong as that of opium, but the wild species still contains the compound. Fascinating.
Thanks for reading this far. Now, I need to move onto researching the forcing vegetables of the 19th century! Cheers, and Happy New Year.