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