by Sarah West
We eat salad without a second thought; so ubiquitous has lettuce become in our restaurants, groceries and home kitchens we might never guess at the peculiarity of its path from wild food to pantry staple. Nor could many consumers of lettuce conceive of the myriad forms it can take. Until I began my own kitchen garden, I knew lettuce as green or red, ruffled loose leaves or crispy-bland iceberg. It turns out that lettuce is capable of infinite variation in flavor, color and texture.
Native to the Mediterranean region, lettuce’s wild origins were as a weed-like leafy annual that released a milky sap when cut. This “milk” is actually a kind of latex, and the basis for lettuce’s binomial nomenclature: Lactuca sativa (“lac” meaning milk, “sativa” meaning sown or cultivated).
The Egyptians were the first civilization to leave a lasting record of their reverence for lettuce. Often depicted in reliefs alongside the fertility god, Min, lettuce was a symbol of sexual stamina and represented Min’s formidable talents. This association may perplex modern lettuce eaters, but the lettuce of ancient Egypt was a different sort of plant than what we are familiar with today: starting as a rosette of narrow leaves, the plant would rise up from the ground on a thick stalk that could reach three feet in height. Egyptians discarded the bitter leaves and ate the succulent stem—a rarity among the flora of their desert clime.
The ancient Greeks also cultivated lettuce, though they appear to have selected their varieties more for leaves than stalk, and ate something likely similar to what we know now as Romaine lettuce, a name given by the French in homage to lettuce’s next curator, the Romans.
In ancient Rome, lettuce became more or less what we think of it as today—a leafy vegetable notable for its combination of sweet and bitter flavors, useful both as an appetizer to encourage hunger before the meal, and as a post-meal digestive aid. In answer to the question of whether one should eat salad before or after dinner, the Romans split the difference and advised both. (As a side note, the word salad comes from the Roman’s preparation herba salata, “salted leaves.”)
Lettuce traveled with the Romans as they charged to northern Europe, each culture that received it making it their own, beginning a trail of diversity whose proliferation we still benefit from today. A true eccentric, lettuce’s genetic library exhibits a high degree of variation. And because lettuce is self-pollinating, it is among the easier vegetables to breed at the home garden scale.
Such is the story of Frank Morton, a Philomath-based seed breeder who sells his innovative lettuce varieties under the name Wild Garden Seed (and shares land with vendor Gathering Together Farm), who got his start tinkering in his own lettuce patch. Morton’s catalog reads like a love letter to lettuce, and his numerous original varieties achieve the vegetable consumer’s holy trinity: beauty, flavor and nutrition.
Today we organize lettuce into five broad categories. The cos or Romaine group with their thick midribs, mild and sweet flavor and sturdy leaves; the crispheads with their crunchy, juicy leaves and often blanched inner heads (think iceberg); the butterheads with their floppy, silken leaves and intricately folded heads; the looseleafs, spacious and open in their growth habit, wavy or densely ruffled or lobed like an oak leaf; and the celtuce, lettuces almost exclusively found in Asian markets that, like the ancient Egyptians’, are grown for their thick, mild-flavored stalk.
Farmers’ markets are the best place outside of a backyard garden to experience lettuce diversity at its finest. That plain old ruffled green from the produce aisle is as predictable as it is reliable. Iceberg is still the most-consumed vegetable of all other vegetables combined. These, along with Romaine, used to be all the choice we had, but we live in the midst of a lettuce renaissance. So let us choose to explore its magnitude, walk the length of its vast kingdom, discover new flavors and the health benefits that come with them, and ease that nutritionally destitute iceberg off its throne for good.
Pictured above, three of my favorite lettuce varieites. From top to bottom: Cardinale, Reine des Glaces (Ice Queen), Flashy Trout’s Back.