The Portable Humanist Podcast SeriesListen to Vermont Humanities talks while you’re on the go.
The Surprising History of Common Garden Vegetables
Science and history writer Rebecca Rupp discusses the stories behind many of our favorite garden vegetables, including Vermont’s own Gilfeather turnip and Early Rose potato. Find out how George Washington was nearly assassinated with a plate of poisoned peas, and what Benjamin Franklin thought of asparagus.
Audio of Rebecca’s talk is courtesy of Mt. Mansfield Community TV.
Rebecca Rupp: A lot of people had a lot of difficulty accepting the potato when it was first introduced to Europe. It looked funny. It looked lumpy. Some people thought it caused leprosy just because it looked like crumpled-up leper’s hands where people had lost their digits. So don’t touch the potato.
Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.
Rebecca Rupp is a professional writer with a Ph.D. in cell biology and biochemistry. She talks about the history of food for our Speakers Bureau series, where experts in a wide variety of topics travel around Vermont to share their knowledge.
One of the most popular topics in the Speakers Bureau is Rebecca’s presentation about the history of common garden vegetables. In this talk she discusses how George Washington was nearly assassinated with a plate of poisoned peas and what Benjamin Franklin thought of asparagus. She also covers state vegetables and fruits, and discusses several vegetables that were developed in Vermont.
We’ve lightly edited the version of her talk that she gave at the Deborah Rawson Memorial Library in May 2017. Thanks to Mount Mansfield Community TV for the original recording.
Rebecca Rupp: Usually I start out with our very own vegetable, the Gilfeather Turnip, which, as I’m sure you well know, is now our official state vegetable. It’s an interesting choice, because historically the turnip has been a pretty low-grade veggie noted for feeding hogs and peasants. The first cultivated turnip was actually an Asian turnip that was grown for its oil-bearing seeds. So it was squished for oil. It wasn’t, you know, gnawed for its root. And this oil-bearing turnip is commonly known as rapeseed or rape. And during the 19th century, this was the oil of choice for oiling steam locomotives, for illuminating lighthouses. The name, however, was eventually changed because we got a little squeegee about the word “rape.” And so now we have canola oil instead of rapeseed oil. But nobody thought much of turnips. I mean, there’s a whole literature of nasty turnip sayings. You know, if you were a turnip eater, you were just a low-brow hick from the sticks who knew nothing. Something that was not worth a turnip was not worth anything at all.
Rebecca Rupp: Interestingly enough, though, there were a lot of giant turnip stories. There was actually a whole literature devoted to enormous turnips. The Grimm brothers actually collected one of them, which is one of my very favorites. The story goes that a poor farmer grew a particularly lusciously large turnip and brought it to the king, who was so tickled with the turnip that he gave the poor farmer a bag of gold. So the farmer goes home with his bag and tells—depending on your version of the tale—either his nasty stepbrother or his greedy next-door neighbor, who promptly goes to the king and gives the king a horse and figures he’s gonna get something incredible. Instead, the king gives him the turnip.
Rebecca Rupp So, John Gilfeather, who came up with the turnip, sounds like an interesting guy. Actually, he sounds a lot like Garrison Keillor’s bachelor Lutheran farmers. They describe him as a lanky man of few words. He also sounds like he was totally paranoid, because before he would sell any of his turnips, he chopped off the tops and chopped off the roots so that nobody could possibly plant this turnip. So apparently he slipped up, because we still have Gilfeather turnips. I’ve only had tiny little Gilfeather turnips, which were pretty good, but I read that the average is supposed to be about the size of a groundhog. So that’s you know, that’s a pretty hefty turnip.
Rebecca Rupp: Turnips are the things that you eat when you’ve got nothing else to eat. Following World War I and II, we had periods of what people call the Turnip Winter, when you really were making practically everything you could think of out of turnips. During World War II in Great Britain, turnips were hot stuff. They had a Minister of Food during World War II, Lord Woolton, who spent a lot of time coming out with pamphlets showing people how to make practically everything out of vegetables or how to use organ meats instead of actual beef. But one of his inventions, apparently, was something that came to be named after him called Woolton Pie, that seems to have been primarily a turnip pie. And there was a story told by one of the women who kept an extensive diary at the time, who said that her six-year-old would burst into tears at the phrase “Woolton Pie.”
Rebecca Rupp: So you can see turnips are very undervalued. I’m really glad that we have picked the turnip for our state vegetable. I think this is a move for turnips. There’s a slight hitch in that our state turnip is actually probably a rutabaga. Genetically, a rutabaga is a cross between a turnip and a cabbage that probably showed up sometime in the Middle Ages in Scandinavia. Well, cabbage has 18 chromosomes. A turnip has 20 chromosomes. A rutabaga has thirty-eight. And that’s what the Gilfeather turnip has. So I think it’s a Gilfeather rutabaga.
Rebecca Rupp: What’s interesting, too, is where state vegetables came from in the first place. For one thing, there’s a lot of questions about what’s actually a vegetable. What’s a vegetable? What’s a fruit? Well, there are a couple of answers. One is botanical, and one is political. There’s a political vegetable. There’s also a parental vegetable. You know, fruit is what everybody’s okay eating, and vegetable is what you feed to your imaginary dog under the table.
Rebecca Rupp: Fruits, botanically are anything that develops from the fertilized ovary of a plant. So fruits in the vegetable garden are things like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash. Anything that doesn’t develop from the fertilized ovary, anything that doesn’t have seeds in the middle of it, is a vegetable. So lettuce and spinach, which are leaves; carrots and beets, which are roots; potatoes, tubers, celery, which is a leaf petiole. You know, the leaf petiole is that little skinny stalk that connects the leaf to the branch. In celery, this is greatly enlarged. So celery, you’re eating the petiole. In any case, to a botanist, those are vegetables.
Rebecca Rupp: But then there’s the political vegetable, which really became famous in the 1880s when a guy named John Nicks imported a batch of tomatoes from the West Indies into New York City. And at the time, there was a tariff in place that said [for] foreign vegetables, you have to pay a tariff duty of 10 percent before you can land your veggies. Well, Nicks, who happened to know his botany, said, “No way. Tomatoes are fruits. I’m not paying.” This thing went all the way to the Supreme Court, and a judge named Horace Gray actually ruled on the tomato and said, “Well, we don’t eat tomatoes for dessert. The tomato is eaten in the salad along with the meat and potatoes as part of the main course. And therefore, politically, I’m ruling that the tomato is a vegetable.” So John Nicks had to pay up.
Rebecca Rupp: Well, this didn’t go away. Then, almost a few years later, there was a case involving beans, when the bean importer said beans are seeds. And this ended up in front of the Supreme Court with opposing attorneys, one of whom was brandishing seed catalogs and saying, “Look, seeds.” And the other one, who had the Boston Cooking School cookbook and said, “Baked bean recipe right here.” And so the beans were ruled a vegetable. Later, truffles, onions, and water chestnuts were all Supreme Court rulings as vegetables, but not rhubarb. Rhubarb, which, like celery, is a leaf petiole—well, it’s a fruit. Legally, it’s a fruit, presumably because it goes into strawberry rhubarb pie. Then the European Union stepped in on this, and they ruled that carrots, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, again, are all fruits because they’re used to make jam.
Rebecca Rupp: Well, the state symbols: the state didn’t help much here. All of these state symbols come out of the world’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, a.k.a. the Chicago World’s Fair, which was a huge splash in 1893. It had twenty-seven million visitors, 65,000 exhibits, 200 buildings. It had a herd of ostriches. It had a 22,000-pound cheese from Canada, which, when they tried to put it in place, crashed through the floor of the Canadian building and had to be moved to the Hall of Agriculture. I mean, this was a thrill. But what they also had, started by a lady’s gardening club, was a national garland of flowers. And the idea was that each state would pick their signature flower and enter it in the national garland. And this was a mess. You know, there were a few states—I think Minnesota roared right in there and said, “We pick the Lady Slipper and that was it.” But everybody else just dissolved into arguments before state legislatures and votes on the parts of schoolchildren. New Hampshire couldn’t make up their minds between the lilac and the apple blossom.
Rebecca Rupp: Certainly the national garland was not ready in time for the Chicago World’s Fair. But everybody thought that this was so cool that there followed rafts of state symbols—you know, state mammals, state reptiles, state trees, state birds. We have a state beverage. It’s milk. Texas has a state footwear: cowboy boots. There were state stars. Maine has a state boat. But when it came down to the state vegetables, it got very complicated because not everybody was really clear on what to do here. So Tennessee and Ohio both—I always have to look this up—both have the tomato as their state fruit. Arkansas, which sat right on the fence, has the tomato as their state fruit and their state vegetable. Louisiana had already picked the sweet potato as their state vegetable, so they deemed the tomato their state vegetable plant. I mean, you tell me how that one works. But the most fascinating one is Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s state fruit is the strawberry, but its state vegetable is the watermelon. And the reason for this is the congress person who proposed it came from a watermelon-growing county in Oklahoma; had, as a young man, won a watermelon seed spitting contest at a state fair; and was very pro-watermelon. And he argued that the watermelon is loosely related to the cucumber and the gourd, which were both quite vegetable-like. And therefore, the watermelon should be the state vegetable. And it is. So you see how sensible our turnip looks compared to some of this.
Rebecca Rupp: So Vermont-unique vegetables. We’ve also got a potato. So our potato has a sad story behind it. Potatoes have a bit of a convoluted history. They were actually first domesticated in the Andes of Peru because the potato, unlike practically everything else, will grow [at] up to 15,000 feet. So halfway up Mt. Everest, you could have a potato patch and you’ll be fine. The name “potato,” unfortunately, comes from batata, which was the Caribbean word for the sweet potato, which has no relation whatsoever to the potato potato. The sweet potato is a member of the Morning Glory family and it’s actually a root, unlike the potato, which is a tuber, which develops from a stolon, which is an underground stem. So they look kind of alike and we eat them kind of alike, but no, they’re not alike. A lot of people had a lot of difficulty accepting the potato when it was first introduced to Europe. It looked funny. It looked lumpy. Some people thought it caused leprosy just because it looked like crumpled-up leper’s hands where people had lost their digits. So don’t touch the potato.
Rebecca Rupp: In England, eventually, there was a guy named William Cobbett who was frothingly anti-potato. He said even to taste the water that a potato had been boiled in would cause irreparable moral damage to the eater. But the potato, like the turnip, was thought to be a really cool solution to the dietary needs of the poor, the army, orphanages, insane asylums. Everybody wanted to shove the potato on somebody else. Just like the turnip.
Rebecca Rupp: The first potato recipes came out of Germany, Prussia, where supposedly Frederick the Great got all of his peasants to grow the potatoes. Frederick was around in the mid-to-late 1700s, and there were a couple of stories about how Frederick finally convinced people to eat potatoes, which nobody wanted to touch. One of them—probably the nicest—is that he went out on the palace balcony and ate a potato and showed everybody has scrumptious it was. There’s another one that’s turned out to be apocryphal but is adorable, which is that he planted a patch of potatoes and set guards around the patch, thus implying to everybody that these things were so yummy and so valuable and so delicious that they were worth guarding. People then stole them and started their own potato patches. And the third story, which frankly sounds the most like Frederick the Great, was that he threatened all peasants who refused to grow potatoes with having their ears and noses cut off. Anyway, they picked up on potatoes. They became a big potato-growing country, published the first known European potato recipes. And from then on, wars in Germany and its subsidiary states involved armies tromping back and forth and destroying each other’s potato fields. There was a war actually called the Potato War just for that reason.
Rebecca Rupp: France supposedly picked up on potatoes from Germany through a guy named Antoine Parmentier. Antoine fought in the, I think it was the Seven Years War, was slammed into a Prussian prison where he languished for a good long time, being fed on potatoes, potatoes, and nothing but potatoes. So when he was finally released and came back to France, he entered a contest, which was offering money to whoever could come up with a way of solving famines in France. And he proposed the potato. Nobody was too enthusiastic until he finally got to court and convinced Marie-Antoinette to wear a little sprig of a potato blossom in her enormous coiffure. And after that, potatoes went. There’s a story of Benjamin Franklin, while he was visiting France in the late 1700s, enjoying an all-potato dinner at the French court. So off potatoes went. And soon we became, if not slightly dependent upon potatoes, in some cases overly dependent. Especially in Ireland, where the problem wasn’t so much potatoes, it was the fact that the Irish were only planting one kind of potato. Biodiversity really pays. They had a single potato called the Lumper. It was a great potato. It was a big healthy potato. Potatoes are wonderful food. From a field planted in potatoes, you get four times as many calories as you do from an equal-sized field planted in grain. I think about this in times of economic insecurity; I think, you know, they say an acre of potatoes will feed a family of six for a year.
Rebecca Rupp: So Ireland, of course, in the 1840s was hit by what’s now known as the Great Hunger or the Irish Potato Famine, where the potatoes just turned to black slime in the ground and nobody knew why. This was blamed on all kinds of things: steam locomotives; the gases from sulfur matches, which had just been invented about that time; a miasma from space; volcanic eruptions; God’s will, which seemed a little petty of God. So this was a horrific tragedy. A million and a half Irish starved to death. A million and a half left the country. Ireland didn’t recover from this for many, many decades. The guy who finally figured out what caused the potato famine was a country vicar from Northamptonshire, who, since his college days, had been a fan of fungi. And he had a microscope. And so when he looked at some of this blasted potato goo under his microscope, he realized that it was a fungus, a species of fungus, and actually it’s a really nasty species. It hit the entire globe. It hit Ireland the worst because they were totally dependent on potatoes, but everybody lost their potatoes. The evil thing is called Phytophythora infestans, and it’s so wicked that it’s actually been proposed as a biological warfare agent by the US and Russia. Nobody’s ever put it into practice, as far as I know, but it’s evil stuff. The reason it’s so effective is that it’s much like influenza. It’s got a great big genome, and it mutates very rapidly, so it’s hard to keep up with it. You know, for the same reason that we have to have flu shots every year, or every other year, because flu keeps moving along, this fungus just keeps pumping.
Rebecca Rupp: Immediately in the wake of the Irish potato famine, everybody wanted to breed a better potato, something that was resistant. And Vermont actually did. A guy from Hubbardton came up with a potato called the Early Rose, which wasn’t totally resistant, but it was more resistant than the average potato. And the Early Rose became famous because it was from the Early Rose that Luther Burbank produced his famous Russet Burbank potato, the one that McDonald’s uses for their French fries—the Russet Burbank, the gold standard for French fries. And the Green Mountain potato—our potato, which was developed at UVM—was also developed in the wake of the Potato Famine as an attempt to come up with a resistant potato. So we not only have our own turnip, but we have two of our very own potatoes.
Rebecca Rupp: How about carrots? One thing I discovered in the course of researching this book is that Peter Rabbit didn’t eat carrots. Did you guys know that? I could have sworn Peter Rabbit ate carrots. I remembered seeing a picture of Peter Rabbit with a carrot, and I went and dug out our copy of Peter Rabbit and looked it up. And it’s not a carrot. It’s a long red radish. No carrots in Peter Rabbit. Who did eat carrots, hand-over-fist, was Henry Ford. Henry Ford was a carrot nut. He was actually an early foodie. He was a defender of soy products way before these were popular. He was anti-milk. He was anti-meat. But he was thrilled with carrots, which he thought held the secret to longevity. So there are reports of Ford sponsoring all carrot banquets where, you know, you started with carrot niblets, and you had carrot souffle, and you had fried carrots and boiled carrots and carrot pie. Hopefully carrot cake at the end. Carrot juice to drink. And at one point, his son Edsel donated a painting to the Detroit Institute of Art by Titian. And Henry was known for being kind of a barbarian. He was not interested in the arts in any way, shape, or form. He was interested in carrots and in automobiles. But he got really tickled with this Titian painting. And then it turned out that the reason was because he had heard that Titian lived to be well into his 90s and he wanted to know if Titian had eaten carrots. So, so much for Ford. And he did live to a ripe old age on his carrots. I think he was well into his 80s anyway.
Rebecca Rupp: One thing that carrots do actually do for us is they are good for our eyesight, which I was always told as a child, though I was suspicious because I was also told that eating your bread crusts would make your hair curl, which it does not. I can attest to this.
Rebecca Rupp: The carrots thing actually came up in spades in World War II right around the time that radar had finally been developed and was being put in place. And so the British, the R.A.F., was having a lot of success in shooting down German planes. In fact, the first guy to ever shoot down a German plane using radar was a pilot nicknamed Cat’s Eyes Cunningham. And the nickname came because the British, trying to distract the Germans from all these bristling radar towers that were going up and down the British coast, claimed that the reason for their pilots’ new success was that they were being fed this prodigious diet of carrots, which enabled them to see in the dark. It’s not clear that this fooled the Germans, who were also in the course of developing radar. But it went over really well with the homefront in Britain who were groping around in the blackout and were hoping that carrots would help. So there was actually a logo called Doctor Carrot. There was a carrot in a lab coat who was promoting eating carrots, everything carrot, which was probably about as much of a sweet thing as you could get during World War II in Britain. But the way this works is that carrots are orange because of a compound called carotene, which in our digestive tracts is cut in half to make two molecules of retinol, which then binds to a protein in the rods of the eyes, which give us, you know—we can’t see in total darkness. You know, you go in a cave, you’re not going to be able to see anything. But in very dim light. And the first sign that you might be Vitamin A deficient and may need more carrots is night blindness. You can’t see as well at night.
Rebecca Rupp: We just got asparagus out of our garden. Anybody else got asparagus yet? Yeah, we were so tickled. That first asparagus is just such a thrill. Asparagus, even though we’ve got it all over the place here wild, is not native to America. It’s European. The original asparagus was kind of a little low crawly thing that grows along the cliffs surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. And this original wild asparagus is now endangered. It’s been tromped on so much that they’re trying to protect it. Our asparagus, the asparagus that we know and love, has been cultivated since ancient times. The Romans cooked it. There was a saying in ancient Rome, “Quicker than it takes to cook asparagus,” which indicates that they liked an al dente asparagus. No, you just popped it in boiling water, and, you know, maybe it was still a little crunchy.
Rebecca Rupp: Pliny the Elder, who may be one of my favorite authors of all time, who was writing in the 1st century A.D. and wrote a thirty-seven volume natural history—his aim was to collect all the knowledge of the world. And it makes for, trust me, hilarious reading. He had no governor whatsoever. Any story anybody told him, he wrote it down. You know, you’ve got Pliny on gold-digging ants from Abyssinia. You’ve got Pliny on obscenely shaped wine glasses and his disapproval of them. And he’s got a lot to say about asparagus. For one thing, it cured everything: elephantiasis, serpent bites, intestinal diseases, problems with the spine. Asparagus. Go for the asparagus. My favorite is, “Anybody who is rubbed all over with mushed asparagus in oil will never, ever be stung by bees.” I have not tried this, so I can’t attest, but . . .
Rebecca Rupp: Asparagus vanished from Europe with the fall of Rome. You know, it was tricky to grow. It was an upper-echelon crop. It wasn’t like the turnips. So, when Europe fell into the Dark Ages, the turnips hung in there and the asparagus vanished. However, it was preserved in the Middle East, and in the 700s, when the Moors came across North Africa and into Spain, they brought asparagus with them. And actually, the asparagus was promoted specifically by a guy named Ziryab, which means “The Blackbird.” He was a musician at the Court of Cordoba in the 9th century, and he sounds like he was the Martha Stewart of his day because we have all these introductions that were made by Ziryab.
Rebecca Rupp: Tablecloths was one of them. The drinking wine from crystal glasses rather than from metal glasses was one of his innovations, because the metal made the wine taste kind of funny. So crystal was better. He came up with the idea of starting a meal with soup and ending it with dessert. He came up with the fashion of wearing your hair in what was called a fringe across the forehead, so he was the innovator of bangs. But he also promoted asparagus. So asparagus came back into Europe with Ziryab and Cordoba and went from there to France and eventually throughout Europe—where it got to the court of Louis the 14th, who had a fabulous vegetable garden, including viewing platforms where he could sit with his court and watch the gardeners at work, which frankly is an ambition of mine. I would love to have a viewing platform and watch people at work in my garden. It doesn’t work that way.
Rebecca Rupp: The asparagus was much favored by the French court and, of course, was passed on to Madame Pompadour. Madame Pompadour was the most famous and most popular mistress of King Louis the 15th. Apparently a beautiful woman; the pompadour hairstyle—there’s a big puff on the back of your—is named after her. There’s a shade of pink that’s named after Madame Pompadour. The champagne glass supposedly is modeled after the shape of her breast, though this is a story that’s told about numerous people, by which they mean that little flattish roundish champagne glass, not the flute.
Rebecca Rupp: But asparagus, of course, like many suggestively shaped garden vegetables, was believed to be an aphrodisiac. So Madame Pompadour frequently served asparagus to Louis the 15th, most popularly in a dish that’s still named after her—Asparagus a la Pompadour, which basically is asparagus and Hollandaise sauce.
Rebecca Rupp: In 1781, Benjamin Franklin submitted a paper to the British Royal Society titled, “Fart Proudly.” Franklin was not a huge fan of the British. He had been insulted at the court of St. James. He had held a grudge, though he was quite famed in Europe as a scientist. But this entire paper was on different things that you could eat that would make pee smell funny. And one of them, famously, was asparagus. He didn’t know why this happened, but subsequent science has shown that it’s because asparagus contains a compound called asparagusic acid, which is broken down into a bunch of nasty smelling sulfur compounds, including methanethiol, which is the stuff that makes skunks smell so repulsive. So that’s what happens after a huge meal of asparagus.
Rebecca Rupp: Tomatoes. Tomatoes look absolutely luscious. I don’t understand why they weren’t accepted more rapidly in Europe, but they were not. They come from Central and South America, were imported into Europe by the Spanish conquistadors. And a lot of people looked at them and said “Eew.” One reason was that the foliage smells funny—you know how tomatoes in the garden, there’s a definite tomato odor. I don’t think it’s that bad. But apparently this put off a lot of people. Then European botanists realized that the tomato was a member, was related to deadly Nightshade. It’s a member of the Nightshade family, like peppers and potatoes. But this was off-putting; “deadly nightshade” doesn’t sound good. And the plants in this family make a wide range of alkaloids, some of which are deadly poison, such as strychnine, nicotine. The alkaloid in tomatoes is called tomatine. It’s very mild, especially compared to strychnine, but it was enough to make people nervous. And so the tomatoes were nicknamed “wolf peaches” because it was a parallel to the poisoned chunks of steak that were put out to poison wolves. So a wolf peach was something that looked absolutely yummy, but was gonna kill you dead as a doornail. Though it didn’t.
Rebecca Rupp: The idea of tomatoes as poisonous is kind of over-plugged in the United States, and there is a story—we have have a tomato historian, a guy named Andrew Smith, who’s written several books solely on the histories of tomatoes. I think he’s written a whole book on ketchup. And from him, I learned that my favorite tomato story is completely fake. It’s what he calls “fakelore.” Everybody repeats this story. We all love this story, but it’s not true. It’s about a Colonel Johnson of Salem, New Jersey. And there’s so much detail about this Colonel. You just cannot believe he is not real. As a child, he is said to have slapped a British regular during the Revolutionary War. He always dressed in imitation of George Washington in white stockings and buckled shoes and knee britches. And he liked tomatoes. So, to prove to everyone that tomatoes were harmless, he was going to eat a bushel of tomatoes on the steps of the Salem, New Jersey courthouse. Apparently, this was a big town gathering. There was a band there playing dirges. His doctor was there advising him that the tomato skins would stick to his stomach and he was going to die frothing at the mouth and in agony. And supposedly he ate his tomatoes and walked away and lived to a ripe, happy old age on salads. There’s not a jot of it that’s true. Smith went to Salem, New Jersey, and went to the library, and went to the Historical Society, and there’s an old Colonel Johnson and there was no tomato eating. But you just hate to let that one go. You know, that’s such a good story. Actually, what they think happened with the tomatoes, and why the tomatoes had a particularly bad reputation in New England, is that we could not grow them. This was before the era of multiple tomato cultivars, especially tomatoes that were cold adapted. Tomatoes grew perfectly well in the South. Thomas Jefferson, in his mammoth garden at Monticello, grew tomatoes.
Rebecca Rupp: And The Virginia Housewife’s Cookbook, which was written by Mary Randolph, who was a distant connection and is thought to contain a lot of original Jeffersonian recipes, had 17 different recipes for tomatoes, including gazpacho. Surprisingly modern. So where you could grow tomatoes, it seemed that people did grow tomatoes. In New England, where we were slow to adopt them, they were unfamiliar. We probably just couldn’t grow the things. Or maybe it was sour grapes. You know, “We can’t have them. So they are poisonous.”
Rebecca Rupp: Tomatoes are sort of fascinating because there’s a huge nutritional difference between raw tomatoes and cooked tomatoes. And, you know, your immediate response is, you know, if it’s raw, it must be better. You know, it’s closer to the earth. You’ve just picked it off the vine. This must be better for you. Well, as it turns out, it’s not true. You guys remember during the Reagan administration when there was a big hoo-ha because ketchup was declared by Congress to be a vegetable for purposes of children’s school lunches? And we all thought that sounded terrible. Come on. Ketchup. Well, as it turns out, one of the major nutrients in a tomato is lycopene. It’s the pigment that makes tomatoes red. It’s also an antioxidant. It’s very good for us. Beefs up our immune systems, is good for cell health and reproduction. Well, lycopene exists in two chemical forms. In the raw tomato, it’s in the trans form, which is a little sticky thing, like a needle. And that’s very poorly absorbed by our digestive tracts. If you cook it, if you boil it up in olive oil and make tomato sauce out of it—or dare I say, ketchup—the lycopene coils up into the cyst form, which is like a little snail, it’s a little curlicue molecule. And that’s much more readily absorbed. So you get 50 percent more lycopene out of tomato sauce than you do out of a delicious raw tomato. Which I am so looking forward to.
Rebecca Rupp: Let me tell you about peas really fast. Peas are cool. The original peas were apparently sort of horrible. They were so heavily starchy that they were actually eaten like we eat chestnuts. They were roasted and then peeled. And the reason that peas with mint was such a big thing for such a long, long time was because it was believed that these heavily starchy peas needed a lot of help. I mean, these were the peas of peas borage and the mint describe the kind of starchy taste.
Rebecca Rupp: Really good peas only came in the 18th century, and some of the first ones were developed by a guy named Thomas Knight, who is one of my favorite horticulturalists of all time—if you can have a favorite horticulturalist, most people don’t. But Thomas Knight was able to indulge his interest in plants because his older brother died. He inherited a castle and a fortune and ten thousand acres of land. So he was good to go. And he’d been interested in plants since he was a little tot, when he saw the family gardener planting what looked to him like little pebbles. And the gardener said, “No, these are going to turn into bean plants.” And he was so tickled at the thought that he went out and planted his pocket knife, hoping that his pocket knife would turn into a pocket knife tree. And when it didn’t, he spent the rest of his life absorbed with plant science. And he developed these fabulous wrinkle-seeded peas. They were tender. They were sweet. It looks like they were asport in his garden; he just stumbled across them. But then he went into an entire breeding program with his super-delicious peas. And, actually, as a scientist, this is a bit of a heartbreaking story. He crossed his peas, you know, he had short peas and tall peas and yellow peas and pink peas and he crossed them. He kept impeccable notebooks filled with data, and reached no conclusions about this whatsoever.
Rebecca Rupp: Fifty years later, in Austria, a monk named Gregor Mendel did the same experiments with peas, got the same data, and developed the theory of inheritance from which all of genetic science comes. So if Knight had just made that one extra step, we would have Knightian genetics instead of Mendelian genetics. Your heart sort of breaks for him, even though he did have a castle in 10,000 acres and glowingly rich, whereas Gregor Mendel was a monk.
Rebecca Rupp: But Knight’s peas: they were wrinkled up because they were mutants. They’re missing an enzyme, so that they cannot convert sugar into starch. And these peas became wildly popular all over, all over Europe. The Americans picked up on them. We love them. Thomas Jefferson, of course, grew them and George Washington loved them. And in the course of the American Revolution, when Washington was being thoroughly trounced on Long Island and around the city of New York, he took his staff and went for dinner at the Francis Tavern, which is still in New York. And there was a loyalist named Thomas Hickey, who had decided that he could take care of the American Revolution by poisoning George Washington, and he would poison Washington’s plate of peas. Luckily, the peas were intercepted by Phoebe Francis, who was the tavern owner’s young daughter, so they never got to the table and Washington survived and we won the Revolutionary War. So, peas—that was all that stood between us and the Revolution. Thomas Hickey came to a terrible end. He was apprehended, he was hanged before a crowd of 20,000 in New York.
Rebecca Rupp: Winston Churchill was a fan of peas. There’s a wonderful Churchill quote that says that the best things in the world are hot baths, cold champagne, old brandy, and new peas.
Rebecca Rupp Oh, I’ve got one lima beans story. I’ll be quick. There’s a woman named Frances Trollope, who in the early 1800s came to America with three or four of her six children because her husband was deeply in debt in Britain. And she was going to save the family fortunes by opening a bazaar in Cincinnati. This was the worst business plan in the world. Cincinnati at the time was a frontier town. The bazaar that she envisioned was kind of a version of, you know, early 1800s shopping mall. It was going to have a tea room. It was going to have lectures. And of course, this thing went out of business almost immediately. It was called Trollope’s Folly; they all made fun of her. So she decided that, all right, she’s not going to lose everything on this trip to America. She will write a travel book. I mean, who wouldn’t, right? So off she goes on a whirlwind tour of America. She hated everything she saw. Everything was loathsome. The people were rude. The men chewed tobacco. The women called you “Honey.” Even Niagara Falls was much less sublime from the American side of the border; it was really much better from the British side. She didn’t like watermelon. You could only choke it down if you doused it in claret. So the book she published was called The Domestic Manners of the Americans, and it sold like hotcakes. She had a bestseller to beat all bestsellers. She made a fortune on both sides of the Atlantic because the British all wanted it so they could hear how awful the Americans were. And the Americans all wanted it so that they could see what she said about them. And one of the few things that she said anything nice about was lima beans. She felt that the Americans really did not deserve this delicious vegetable, which had better be adopted in Britain. So lima beans, Frances Trollope.
[01:04:33] Well, guys, thank you so much for sitting here and listening to me talk about veggies.
That’s writer Rebecca Rupp, talking about the fascinating history of common garden vegetables.