Have you ever heard of sea cabbage, a wild cousin of the domesticated brassicas? Did you know that edible bananas are a primitive plant thought to be related to some of the first trees of the primeval forest?
I didn’t either until this weekend when I was finishing up an article on unusual vegetables and decided to fact check some long-ago gleaned historical knowledge against books in my personal library. What began as a quick check turned into a much longer read.
The first book I pulled out is called The Origins of Fruit and Vegetables by Johnathan Roberts (in case you’re wondering mine cost $22US, not $472 YIKES). I think I’ve had this book in my possession since it was first published in 2001, and while I have flipped through the pages of historical prints and food-based artwork more than once, I’m not certain of just how much I have actually read. If you’re interested in plant history and ethnobotany, this book is a great place to start. It’s not exactly a definitive tome on the subject but it’s a beautiful book that provides just enough insight to draw you into searching out more. It also gives you something to talk about in mixed company. Now if only they’d make a gardener’s trivial pursuit for geeks like me.
Next week I am off on a month long journey to The Caribbean. As you can imagine I am extremely excited about food and plants. One of the plants I am most stoked about seeing up close and personal is the vanilla orchid. I have actually seen the vining plant growing in the greenhouse of a botanical garden, but I have never seen one growing outdoors and in bloom nor smelled the scent of its flowers. Or touched a green pod straight off the plant for that matter. Everything about the vanilla from its history to the process of growing and fermenting the beans fascinates me to no end. I found a book at a used bookstore last week that indulges everything one could want or need to know about vanilla. I plan to read it during the first part of my trip to get in the mood to see vanilla towards the end. Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance, written by Patricia Rain, the self-proclaimed Queen of Vanilla is indeed what I would call a definitive tome on the subject, covering everything including a sampling of interesting new ways to use vanilla in cooking. If the beans are affordable and customs allows me to bring some back, I plan to get a whole bunch as gifts for friends. I’d also like to try my hand at making homemade vanilla extract to give as gifts. I am after-all going to be visiting places known for both decent rum and vanilla production. I should be able to produce a quantity of excellent extract affordably. I think I’m going to need bigger luggage.
A third book, one that I have gone to many times and have even posted about here is Herbal: The Essential Guide to Herbs for Living by Deni Bown. I bought my copy back in 2002 after much deliberation. At $58.00 the book is not exactly cheap but I promise you it is worth the dough if you are curious about the historical background and usage of the herbs you like to grow or are seeking inspiration to try a few exotics. The book does contain some growing information but is not meant as a gardening primer. I’d suggest Exotic Herbs by Carole Saville, or New Book of Herbs by Jekka McVicar if you’re looking for more definitive growing considerations for a wide variety of common and unusual herbs.