Lemony snippets

Food tastes delicious when it’s served with lashings of history and humour

Published - March 19, 2022 04:00 pm IST

It’s a simple dish, but never fails to lift my spirits. Called rasewalley aloo — or potatoes in tomato gravy — it just needs a few basic spices, and an appetite, to hit the right spot. I never gave its two main ingredients much thought though and was greatly impressed when I read recently that the tomato had been to court, and the spud was once considered evil.

In 1893, 300 years after tomatoes were first cultivated in Europe, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether tomatoes were a fruit or a vegetable. A 10% tax had just been imposed on imported vegetables to protect American farmers. In 1887, a tomato importer moved court, arguing that tomatoes were fruits and therefore exempt from the rule — and he wanted his money back.

The case went to the Supreme Court, and the judges ruled it was indeed a vegetable, because, “like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, [it is] usually served at dinner... and not, like fruits generally, as dessert,” writes Matt Siegel in The Secret History of Food: Strange But True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat. Before that, for years tomatoes were thought to be poisonous and believed to be used in “witches’ brew” and to summon werewolves.

Plague and lemonade

Potatoes went through a rough patch, too.

“In addition to their associations with witchcraft and devil worship, they were once thought to cause syphilis and leprosy, largely because of the way they looked...” Many believed that eating potatoes at night “caused mothers to bear children with abnormally large heads or that pinning someone’s name to a potato cursed them to certain death.”

Siegel’s book, along with Tom Nealon’s Food Fights & Culture Wars: A Secret History of Taste, has given me much to chew on. Nealon tells us that the words ‘buccaneer’ and ‘barbecue’ emerge from the same source — the Caribbean Taíno tribe word barbacòa, a framework of wooden sticks used to dry or slowcook meat.

I enjoyed reading about lemonade and the plague in Nealon’s book. Italy in the 17th century was known for its soft, hard, and mixed drinks, available in cafés and sold by street vendors. “Parisian visitors to Italy — such as Cardinal Mazarin (1602-61), who had succeeded the diabolical Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) as chief minister to the King of France — left wondering why they didn’t have limonadiers carrying fresh beverages around their own fair city... Shortly before his death, Cardinal Mazarin — who liked nothing better than new things he could tax — brought limonadiers to Paris,” Nealon writes.

Soon, the citric drink became so popular that it was carried by limonadiers to every corner of the city. And it was this, Nealon contends, that saved Parisians from the plague, for limonene in lemon is a natural insecticide and insect repellent.

Little windows

“The most effective part of the lemon is the limonene-rich peel... The French were piling lemon peels and the crushed husks of lemons... into the best possible place to disrupt the flea-rat-human-rat chain: the trash. In this way, the city was effectively, if accidentally, covered by limonene.”

The two books are little windows to the fascinating history of food. Take the chapter on thickeners, where Nealon writes that Americans were falling behind the Soviets when it came to thick gravies, for the latter added sour cream to their sauces. Then, in the early 1960s (following, he helpfully points out, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Yuri Gagarin’s space mission), the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered that a polysaccharide excreted by the plant-disease-causing bacterium Xanthomonas campestris made a “terrific thickener and emulsifier” when dried.

“Thus was born one of the great products of the 20th century and the world’s most versatile thickener: xanthan gum. Did it win the Cold War? Opinions are split, but on balance, I’d say ‘probably.’”

You can’t beat food and history — served with a dollop of humour.

Rahul Verma likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.