“Tis not her coldness, father,
That chills my labouring breast;
It’s that confounded cucumber
I’ve ate and can’t digest.”
English novelist and humorist Richard Harris Barham was clearly no Romeo, but to borrow another Shakespearian reference — this one from the Tempest and reputedly the original use of the phrase — he was in a bit of a pickle.
American educator William Andrus Alcott apparently knew of this cuke concern when he advised, “Some may smile at the idea of ripe cucumbers, and say that the very thought of them, like the smell, is offensive . . . . But whatever other uses are made of the cucumber, I entreat the reader not to use it in the form of pickles. These, of almost all the forms of vegetable substances, seem to me worst adapted to the human stomach; and I cannot but hope will be shunned by every reader.”
The modern answer to the curse of the cucumber, of course, for those that can stomach them, is the burpless variety. This type of cucumber was developed with less bitterness and is reputed to be better on the belly. If only it was around during Barham’s time, he might have been luckier with the ladies.
Cucumbers in their many forms have been both adored and abhorred throughout history. Bible history tells us that the Israelites complained to Moses about the lack of luxuries in the wilderness, missing both cucumbers and melons.
And for a time, they were called “cowcumbers,” because they were thought to be only edible for those ruminants.
Give English poet Samuel Johnson the last word for the naysayers. He insisted, “A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as it is good for nothing.”
Others, including myself, strongly disagree with those who receive the cucumber with a cold shoulder.
In his book Plant Love, Richard Folkard shared this romantic notion, “To see cucumbers in a dream denotes that you will speedily fall in love. Or, if you are in love, then you will marry the object of your affection.”
Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Queen Elizabeth I, George Washington and Amerigo Vespucci were not in the closet about their love for cucumbers either. Cleopatra even credited these green gourds with providing some of her beauty.
Cucumbers are popular with more folks than not. They are, in fact, the fourth most widely cultivated vegetable in the world. Or maybe not, since cukes are more accurately (in the botanical sense) fruit. More than 84 billion pounds of cucumbers are grown annually all over the world, with more than two-thirds of the global supply produced by the Chinese.
The Chinese were not the first to corner the market. Cucumbers originally came from India, though they quickly spread across the world, arriving in America by way of expeditions led by Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus. Cuke cultivation came much earlier when Roman Emperor Tiberius insisted on eating cucumbers every day and methods were devised to keep him supplied no matter the season.
For ease in propagation, they are good to grow! Even better is their reputation for health and wellbeing. Romans believed cucumbers could be used to treat scorpion bites, bad eyesight and even to scare away mice. Wives wanting more children wore cucumbers around their waist and midwives carried them, only throwing them away after successful births.
In more recent times, newspaperman and food writer Waverly Root took the middle ground, trying to calm the cucumber conflict. Staying as cool as (what else) a cucumber, he called this food “about as close to neutrality as a vegetable can get without ceasing to exist.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.