When I slice a salad, I always start with several fresh, crisp lettuce leaves. Even a Just Lettuce salad would be fine with me. Sometimes this brings my fellow diner to try to fish out only the “true vegetables” from the tossed salad bowl, while musing aloud as to why I think he is a rabbit…
There are those who believe that lettuce is a mere garnish meant to be pushed aside in order to get to real food, and that filling the salad bowl with lettuce is deceiving: the bowl full of lettuce creates volume, yet in fact this is just empty fare. Or is it? To fundamentally disprove the hype that lettuce is actually Styrofoam disguised as a vegetable, lettuce dedicate this week’s Newsletter in praise of… lettuce!
“Lettuce” in English, “laitue” in French, all stem from the Latin Lactuca, because when we cut open the core, it secretes a lactic resin. The Greeks viewed lettuce as bearing medicinal attributes, and Hippocrates, the patron of medicine, believed it to be beneficial to one’s health. The doctor of the Roman Emperor Augustus endeared this healthy vegetable to the Romans and their successors, who believed it to regulate bowel movement in young people, and help older people sleep soundly.
Today we know that this lactic liquid, whose scent is similar to opium, contains alkaloids, and that all the lettuce varieties are somewhat narcotic. There are those who say that eating large quantities of lettuce can lead to stupor and even loss of consciousness. But in normal quantities, lettuce settles the digestive tract, relieves pain, encourages sleep and curbs coughs. A warm lettuce leaf extract eases asthma attacks and bronchial spasms.
Folk medicine employs a potion comprised of a lettuce-leaf infusion to relieve coughs and skin burns. Eating lettuce leaves or drinking a lettuce seed brew can benefit eye infections, nephritis, hepatitis and stomachaches. Lettuce has a rich water-content, therefore prevents thirst and encourages urination. Lettuce is recommended for nursing mothers to boost lactation. Nissim Krispil writes that lettuce is beneficial for those suffering from anemia, hair loss, constipation, liver malfunction, and insomnia.
Green lettuce is rich in vitamins K, A, and the B vitamin group, including folic acid. It also boasts some vitamin C, calcium, potassium and iron content. Dark-leaf lettuce is a source of the antioxidant Lutein, which is said to improve vision. Purple lettuce contains Anthocyanins, antioxidants which slow the aging process.
Various lettuce varieties grow wild in Europe, the Mediterranean Basin, Asia Minor and India. It is thought to have originated in Southeast Europe and Western Asia. Lettuce was cultivated and raised by the Chinese and Egyptians in ancient times, where it was an honored and respected vegetable: The Egyptians considered lettuce a very potent vegetable and dedicated it to Min, the God of Fertility. The Persians, who viewed lettuce as a delicacy, made it a dish for kings.
The popular lettuce in Israel which boasts elongated and erect leaves is known as “Arabic lettuce,” for it was cultivated and first grown in ancient Egypt some 4,000 years ago. Others call it Romaine lettuce after the Romans and Greeks who brought it to Europe and from there to the rest of the world.
In the Bible, lettuce is coined Maror (bitter herb), a vital Passover Seder component. Mishna sages name five types of bitter herbs that are considered “Maror.” One such type is “chasah,” (Pesachim 39a) which some believe is named for God’s mercy (“chas”) on the People of Israel (Pesachim 39, 1). However, it is more likely that the verb ‘chas’ in Aramaic is similar to ‘khas’ in Arabic, which means something worthy of content and best avoided. (The word ichsa derives from it as well…). It is also possible that Chasa received its name from the bitter and less-friendly flavor associated with the Maror and has, in fact, no connection with mercy or compassion. Choosing modern lettuce as Maror does not do justice to the idea of the extreme bitterness, for after many years of meticulous selection, the lettuce we eat is usually sweet and yummy… But tradition is tradition, and this source was renamed in modern Hebrew.
There are almost 100 lactic resin weeds belonging to the Lactuca variety scattered across the Northern Hemisphere. Most can be used only for decorative purposes, as they are bitter, toxic and inedible. Only the Lactuca Sativa includes all the edible lettuce varieties. Salad lettuce is not a plant that grows wild (like hyssop or sage, which you can find on a picnic in the Jerusalem Hills, very similar to what you grow in your garden). It is not clear when lettuce arrived in the world, but archaeological findings place it in ancient times, when Egyptian gardeners began changing the wild lettuce for a cultivated variety. Years of selection, growing only the less-bitter lettuce and keeping its seeds to pass on to the next generation of gardeners, created a different plant from its wild ancestor. And yet, in deference to its ancestral merits, the salad lettuce retained two of its ancient characteristics: when it blooms and creates seeds, it is bitter and inedible. Difficult growing conditions, like heat waves and the like, will also produce a bitter lettuce. Another characteristic: lettuce seeds find it very difficult to sprout if they are covered in earth. They need light to sprout, so when you sprout lettuce, cover the seeds with a very light layer of earth or don’t cover at all.
Some different varieties of lettuce:
Romaine lettuce grows year-round in Israel. Each season, we plant a different variety according to the seasons and temperature. Though lettuce thrives in summer and winter, it still needs support and protection: usually we grow it in our open fields, but during wintertime we guard some plants in our nethouses. Some of the winter rounds grew there, while others developed in the plastic tunnels. In summer, we spread a shade net to protect the lettuce plants from the heat. The red lettuce, curly green or red leaf lettuce and the icebergs are much more delicate and only agree to grow in autumn or spring, the time we enjoy a broader selection of lettuce varieties in our boxes.
So, although lettuce is a permanent guest, don’t take her for granted! Give her a little rub of appreciation and tell her that although she’s almost always there for us, you’re still happy to seeher every week! Rest assured, she will generously express her gratitude. You can find surprising recipes for lettuce in our recipe section. Give it a peek……………
Wishing us a good week, one in which we continually appreciate the steady components among us,
Alon, Bat Ami, Dror, Orin and the Chubeza team
WHAT’S IN THIS WEEK’S BOXES?
Monday: Parsley root/celeriac, zucchini/sweet red peppers, parsley/coriander, potatoes/sweet potatoes, cabbage/cauliflower, fresh garlic/fresh onions, Swiss chard/kale, fresh fava beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, Arabic lettuce/curly lettuce/iceberg lettuce.
Large box, in addition: Beets, snow peas or garden peas/slice of pumpkin, kohlrabi/carrots.
FRUIT BOXES: Bananas/lemons, avocados, oranges/pomelit, red or green apples, strawberries.
Wednesday: Zucchini/sweet red peppers, parsley/coriander, potatoes/sweet potatoes, kohlrabi/cauliflower, fresh garlic/onions/scallions, Swiss chard/kale, fresh fava beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, Arabic lettuce/curly lettuce/iceberg lettuce, snow peas or garden peas/slice of pumpkin.
Large box, in addition: Parsley root/celeriac, beets/carrots, cabbage.
FRUIT BOXES: Bananas/lemons, avocados, oranges/pomelit/clemantinot, red or green apples, strawberries.