Ancient Greeks and Romans were the people most responsible for what we in the West view as “what’s for dinner.” They were the ones who added lettuce-based salads and desserts to a menu that had previously focused on just getting enough calories to survive. I’ve actually noticed in my travels that, in areas outside the cultural influence of Greece and Rome, these things—lettuce salads and dessert—don’t really exist. In Asia, servers will put out a sliced orange at the end of a meal, because they’ve learned that American and European tourists expect something sweet, but it’s not part of the culture, and a nice tossed green salad is just not something you’re going to find on a traditional Oriental menu. (This is not to say they don’t have sweets; they just don’t have dessert. Sweets are snacks.)

Evidence from Egyptian tomb paintings indicates that lettuce was being cultivated in Egypt before 4500 BC, though the first writings were Assyrian documents from around 800 BC, when lettuce was identified as being among the 250 plants growing in the gardens of King Merodach-Baladan in Babylon. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that lettuce appeared on royal tables in Persia by about 550 BC, but it was a delicacy reserved for kings. These civilizations all bordered on the likely point of origin of lettuce: inner Asia Minor, trans-Caucasus, Iran, and Turkistan.

Rome loved lettuce as soon as it arrived, which was before 500 BC, because by 500 BC, lettuce was listed along with cabbage and artichokes as the three most popular vegetables in the empire. It was the Romans who decided that leaf lettuce would be nicer if there were more leaves and they were closer together, so they bred the first head lettuce. The Romans preferred the Cos lettuces, what we more commonly call Romaine (actually, that’s why we call it Romaine—it was Rome’s lettuce, though by the time the lettuce was being called Romaine, Rome was the home of popes, not emperors). But the alternate name of Cos tells us where the lettuce came from before it reached Rome: the Greek island of Cos.

Lettuce spread northward from the Mediterranean, both in wild and cultivated forms. Actually, cultivated lettuce (Lactuca sativa) is closely related to the wild lettuce (Lactuca scariola), from which it seems likely (though not definite) that the domestic varieties were developed. By 600 AD, lettuce was also being grown in China, from whence it spread throughout Asia.

Lettuce continued to gain popularity through the Middle Ages, so it was natural that it be among the plants brought to the New World once the Atlantic had been crossed. And they brought it early. Columbus must have taken seeds with him, as lettuce was growing on Isabela Island in the Bahamas by 1494. Successive landfalls were made as new places were explored and settled, and lettuce spread through North and South America, both in wild and domestic forms.

Lettuce continued to be immensely popular. Thomas Jefferson grew 19 varieties of lettuce at Monticello. Three types of lettuce seed arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788, and it quickly spread there, as well.

Today, lettuce continues to be immensely important. In the United States, it is second only to potatoes as most popular fresh vegetable. The average American consumes around 30 pounds of lettuce each year. But lettuce is important worldwide, including in those countries where a tossed green salad is almost unknown (such as Asia, where it can be anything from a hot vegetable to a wrap for savory fillings). It is the world’s most popular salad plant.

Lettuce probably gets its name from the Old French laitues (plural of laitue, the French name for lettuce). Like the plant’s Latin name, Lactuca (think lactose), the French name laitue also means “milky” (milk is lait in French). This is because lettuce has a milky juice running in its veins—a juice which, like milk, is mildly sedative.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.
© 2009 Cynthia Clampitt



Filed under culinary history, Food, History, Language

3 responses to “Lettuce

  1. Kris

    My only real follow up question is whether “iceberg” lettuce was one of the original crops or whether it is a product of genetic engineering? If the latter is true, it, along with the tomato, and sugar substitutes, provides further evidence that man cannot improve upon that which God created.

    Also, I wonder who was the first person who picked up a leaf of lettuce and tried it, risking possible poisoning!

    • Iceberg lettuce is relatively new, but is still old enough to have predated genetic engineering. It first appeared in the late 1800s, an aberration that was sufficiently appealing to continue to breed it. Seeds for iceberg lettuce, which was originally known as “crisphead” lettuce, first appeared in the Burpee seed catalog in 1894.

      It wasn’t called iceberg lettuce until the 1930s, when it started being a popular crop in California, and it didn’t really become the iconic American lettuce until World War II. Even James Beard liked iceberg, saying, “Many people damn it, but it adds good flavor and a wonderfully crisp texture to a salad .”

      Iceberg is actually not the only type of crisphead lettuce, it’s just the most popular.

  2. So much of it in the picture. I like lettuce with salad dressing on it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s