A GROWer’s take on Vegetables: A Biography

As part of our monthly GROW Harvest theme, Amanda Wilman tells us about a fascinating book that really is all about vegetables. Vegetables: A Biography has an impressive range of influences, from cultural to agronomic, and its free to download until the end of the October! And if you want to find out more about which vegetables to grow where you garden, keep an eye out for the GROW app which we’ll be launching in Spring 2018!

What is a Biography of Vegetables? Well, what it’s not is a recipe book or an instruction manual on what to plant when and where. The texts that comprise this book are based on presentations made by the author to the Université Populaire du Goût (UPG). The Université Populaire — a creation of Michel Onfray, the contemporary French writer and philosopher — was designed to be open to all who cannot access the state university system. It does not accept any money from the State, being financed by Onfray’s books. Onfray explains the origin of the Université Populaire du Goût in his notes:

When I was told “.. that bushel baskets of vegetables offered to the food bank have no takers because potential recipients either cannot or will not cook them, I decided to create the UPG .

… Évelyne Bloch-Dano responded immediately. She was generous, available, ready to officiate in front of more than five hundred people, in the steam arising from the pots in which the chefs prepared their dishes, and to recount, as a biographer, the adventures of those vegetables, which had suddenly become characters in a novel, heroes in a film, players on the stage of planetary geography, cosmopolitan actors, familiar faces. As La Fontaine did with animals, she gave voice to a parsnip or to a tomato, and gave the floor to the vegetables being honored in the banquet hall of the sous-préfecture.”

In the Introduction “From Grandma’s Garden to the Université Populaire du Goût”, Évelyne Bloch-Dano, concocts (in her own words) “jardinières, mixing the history of the vegetable with that of taste, literature with botany, art history with the history of food.” Using her skills as a biographer she approaches each vegetable group as though they were a person and uses examples from a dazzling array of possible approaches: literature, art history, genetics, music, poetry, film, history, prehistory, medicine, geography, geology, climatology, horticulture and gardening theory take turns in helping to describe and illuminate how they have come to be what we see and taste today.

Her history of ‘The Cabbage’ for example covers cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and Chinese cabbage. It explains which countries these members of the cabbage family have originated in, how they have been cooked and eaten, gives examples of cabbage soups in French 19th century literature and then delves a little deeper. We learn, for example, about how the associated sulfuric smell of cabbage became “the emblem of a popular, inelegant food that smelled bad and had uncomfortable side effects!”. She progresses through its appearance in films, how to preserve it and stuff it and onto the possible symbolism of ‘cabbage’ in wordplay in many different languages. This includes the Greek legend that cabbages grew where the tears of Lycurgus, king of Thrace — who had been made insane by Rhea, goddess of the Earth — fell. She winds up by discussing its dietary and medicinal qualities and the decline in varieties of ancient seed stock. Quite quirky and comprehensive, all told.

Other vegetables explored in similar fashion are The Cardoon & Artichoke, The Parsnip, The Carrot, The Pea, The Tomato, The Bean, The Pumpkin and The Chili Pepper.

Recognising that the original text was given to a predominantly French audience, the translator, Teresa Lavender Fagan, has worked with the author to translate in footnotes some of the historical recipes and quotations or wherever explanation might be needed. The footnotes therefore make interesting reading on their own — the concept of this book is so eclectic that it is likely to be a fascinating addition to most people’s knowledge of commonly grown and eaten vegetables. I loved all the trivia about these common vegetables and find myself recalling obscure facts whilst considering what to serve for dinner!

Michel Onfray explains far better than I can the value of Bloch-Dano’s unique application of her skill: “By showing, as only a biographer can, how one becomes what one is — when one is a pea, a bean, a Jerusalem artichoke. In other words, by showing that a vegetable possesses a symbolic aura that is greater than its caloric or market value. Or by revealing its poetry as well as its genetics. By telling the odyssey, the destiny, of a vegetable, each one unique, each one different, each a variation of the same: she presented the tomato, and the specific tomatoes that were being cooked that day.”

You’ll never look at a vegetable the same way again!