Almost exactly three hundred years ago Londoners could buy the first English-language book on how to make a salad. Called Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets (acetaria being an old word for salad greens), it instructed that only the freshest leaves straight from the garden should be used. They should be 'sprinkled', not soaked, in fresh water, drained in a colander, and then they should be swung"all together gently in clean, coarse napkin." They should be dressed with oil of a pallid olive green . . .such as native Lucca olives afford," with vinegar of the best quality infused with flowers and herbs, and with the finest crystals of sea salt. The author also gave detailed instructions for cultivating thirty five different greens: among them, four varieties of romaine lettuce, spinach, nasturtiums for their leaves and for their flowers, a variety of herbs to be used with discretion, cresses, sorrel, spinach, endive, chicory, celery, fennel, radish, and today's favorites, mache and arugula. Nothing could be more up to date.
Or could it? If you thumb through the book, you have to search out these hints in page after page of wordy prose, liberally sprinkled with Latin, Greek and Hebrew quotations. Not what we expect today in a cook book. Why, we have to ask, did the author John Evelyn inflict this on his readers? Because not one of his readers was ready to try a salad. Everyone agreed with the wisdom of the ages: civilized people just didn't eat salads. They ate meat and grains. Raw greens were for animals and savages. For the civilized, they offered no nutrition. Besides, they made you sick to the stomach when they rotted in your gut, just like they rotted on the compost heap.
So Evelyn, one of the most learned men of the day, one of the exclusive group of scientists in the Royal Society of London, wheeled out every argument and every ancient authority he could think of to persuade his readers to try salad. Learned doctors had been wrong to think that rotting in the stomach was bad, he explained. Unappealing as it might be, digestion was no more than a kind of rotting. They were wrong that salads offered no nutrition: just think of all those most vigorous animals whose food is only grass." And the clincher. Historians too were wrong in thinking that only savages ate salads. Salads had been the foods of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. It's easy to smile. But it's possible that one day our historical and nutritional stories-the healthy Mediterranean diet, the unalloyed evils of fat will also seem quaint. Meanwhile I'm planning to prepare Evelyn's early spring salad of lettuce with sorrel, radish, purslane, cress, garnished with samphire. If you are interested in trying one of his salads, a reprint of his book, Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, is available from Acanthus Books, www.acanthus-books.com