As I’ve mentioned before, part of the problem of researching various food items and writing about them is finding the requisite amount of “excitement”. Talking about wine, cheese or chocolate actually brings out a fair amount of passion within me. Talking about lettuce? Meh, not so much.
But Lettuce is where we are currently at on the food timeline, so talk about it we must.
Part of the problem with lettuce is that we Americans deal mostly with iceberg Lettuce, a light green, lightweight leafy veggie that’s crunchy when cold, yet has almost no flavor that I can discern. To state that I hate iceberg lettuce would be a massive understatement. When I eat out, Every time I see iceberg lettuce in a salad, I know that the restaurant gave little or no thought to the dish. This also proves, once again, that I have an opinion on everything.
But Lettuce is far more than iceberg. In fact, iceberg is a relatively new variety of the leafy vegetable, having been developed in the mid 20th century. Back in the day, say around 600 BCE, lettuce was served on the tables of the Persian kings, and was likely a cultivated version of wild lettuce. Wild lettuce is now widely scattered over the globe, but it originated in inner Asia Minor, the trans-Caucasus, Iran, and Turkistan.
The Egyptians and Greeks loved the stuff, and by the apex of Roman history, there were several varieties, none of them iceberg.
So we’re talking about a vegetable that has seen the highs and lows of history. Columbus is said to have brought Lettuce to the Bahamas, thereby introducing it to the Western Hemisphere. Because the ease in which one can grow lettuce, lettuce seedlings were very likely brought over from Europe to the new colonies.
As mentioned previously, it’s only been recently that lettuce, as we recognize it, came into existance. For that you can blame a plant disease called “brown blight”. The USDA back in 1922, asked a plant breeder to develop a lettuce that was resistance to the blight. His results ended up in several varitation that fall under the “Imperial” cultivar (parent), one of which was a head of lettuce we call iceberg. I should note the lower case “i” in “iceberg”. If you see a capital “I” in “Iceberg Lettuce”, you’re actually refering to a softer, smaller cultivar of the “Batavia” variety.
At any rate, here are the basic lettuce varieties you can find in most markets:
- crisphead – Another Imperial derivative, similar to iceberg
- Loose Leaf
- Chinese lettuce
There’s also endive and chicory which I will talk about later, which is a cousin of lettuce, but is technically NOT lettuce.