The Secret Life of Vegetables

18 Jul 2012|Cultural Insight Team

As a team full of foodies, we spend a good portion of our time in the supermarket. And whilst we’re there, we like to dig just a little bit deeper.

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Carrots, for example, are never just a great ingredient for soups and cakes, they are also a piece of 17th Century Dutch political propaganda. Originally grown in Afghanistan, they were a vivid violet for centuries, but on arrival in the Netherlands they were cultivated to be bright orange – a bold and nutritious emblem of the House of Orange and the struggle for Dutch Independence.

It is a strange story, but not a surprising one. We often find that things as humble as vegetables are rich with history and myth.

Leeks became the national symbol of Wales after a bloody battle with Saxon invaders where it was impossible to tell friend from foe. A young monk noticed the problem and told the Welshmen to wear a Leek in their helmets to mark them out. The monk was called David and remains the patron saint of the country. The unassuming King Edward potato is named for the Coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. This very king was the man who we can thank for the tradition of eating roast beef, roast potatoes and Yorkshire puddings on a Sunday lunchtime.

And even in more recent times, vegetables are intrinsically linked to our aspiration of the moment. The popularity of the avocado in the 1980s, was full of exoticism and sophistication, which moved to a fresh notion of growth and health encapsulated in the “vine-ripened” tomato of the 1990s. And now, our current penchant for the dirt-crusted, unperfect and real is summed up by the love of celeriac or Jerusalem artichokes.

We love searching for the hidden meanings in everyday things. Even  mere vegetables are able to reflect the philosophy of their time, and are as much cultural artefacts as books or paintings.  They are often the fossils of social and political moments. So, next time you’re pushing your trolley, be aware of the abundance of story in every aisle.

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