Cucumbers, center stage.

Cucumbers, center stage.

In the United States, when one speaks of “gourds,” the thing that seems to come most readily to mind is something inedible that shows up in centerpieces around Thanksgiving time. But the gourd family is large and varied, and it includes a number of very edible members, including melons, squash, and cucumbers.

Cucumbers are among the world’s oldest cultivated vegetables. Archaeologists have found evidence of cucumbers growing around human dwellings dating to 7750 BC.—and that places cucumbers pretty close to the dawning millennia of agriculture—at least until the next big dig finds something earlier, as seems to be the case these days, with increased interest in and research of early foodways. But at present, it looks like we’ve been intentionally growing cucumbers for nearly 10,000 years.

Those earliest signs of cultivation were discovered near the Thailand-Burma border. This seems a likely general area for point of origin, though the cucumber had traveled far and wide by the time we have written confirmation of its popularity. By 1000 BC., we find it popping up in India (where, depending on who you believe, may be where cucumbers were first pickled, though that depends on how you define pickle, which is trickier than it seems). Cucumbers had also reached the Middle East by this time, and the Old Testament relates that, when the Israelites escaped from Egypt, among the things they lamented leaving behind were cucumbers (along with melons, leeks, onions, and garlic).

Though the cucumber took a while to get popular in northern Europe, it was a hit in ancient Rome. In all fairness to northern Europeans, cucumbers wouldn’t be all that easy to grow in harsher climates, and even the Romans had to work at growing them. The Emperor Tiberius planted cucumbers in carts and had his slaves wheel the carts around to keep the vines in the sun.

Cucumbers finally began to appear in France and England in the 14th century. They reached the Americas almost as soon as Europeans did. (Actually, Germany appears not to have adopted the cucumber until the 16th century, so cucumbers may have reached the New World before they were available in Germany.) Most of the early explorers, especially the Spanish, came from warmer, Mediterranean areas, where cucumbers had spread during Roman times, and conquistadors and colonists carried cucumbers with them to the New World, where they quickly became popular. In fact, cucumbers were adopted so eagerly by the Pueblo Indians that some early researchers assumed the gourds were indigenous to the Americas.

Cucumbers are idiomatically associated with coolness. However, “cool as a cucumber” is not simply metaphorical. Growing in a field on a hot summer day, the interior flesh of a cucumber is about 20 degrees cooler than the outside air temperature.  In fact, its cool, crisp demeanor is the cucumber’s chief virtue; it has relatively little nutritional value (but it also has almost no calories, being about 95 percent water). Perhaps it is this lack of nutritional value that led Dr. Samuel Johnson to write that “A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.” However, despite the good doctor’s lack of regard, the cucumber has never lost its popularity. It is grown worldwide, and in the United States, it is a major cash crop.

(Originally appeared in Hungry Magazine, in a slightly different form.)

©2008 Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under culinary history, Food, History

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