During a Passover Seder feast a blessing is recited over two kinds of bitter herbs, Maror and Chazeret. In America, the bitter herb often used for the Maror is horseradish while Romaine lettuce stands in for Chazeret. Since a Seder is the ritual retelling of the liberation of the Israelites and of their exodus from Egypt, and since the bitter herbs are meant to evoke the bitterness of slavery that the Jews endured under the Pharaohs, you might think that using lettuce would be cheating. Sure, horseradish is harsh, but can a mouthful of lettuce evoke anything more than mild discontent? As a lazy Lutheran and a dirt farmer I’m not qualified to speak to the spiritual implications of different vegetables in Jewish practice, but as a student of vegetable lore I can say that both horseradish and lettuce are deeply rooted in Egypt’s history, agriculture and cuisine.
Opinions differ on how and when the tribes of Israel fled Egypt but horseradish is known to have been cultivated in Egypt from at least 1500 BC onwards. Horseradish evolved in western Asia and was doubtless gathered in the wild for eons before it was confined behind the garden gate. The bitter, stinging flavor of raw, grated horseradish root comes from the mustard oil that is released when the plant’s tissues are damaged. Horseradish is a member of the Brassicaceae family, along with mustards and turnip greens. Cooked greens may be less biting than that of their horseradish cousins but what bitterness they do have is due to the presence of mustard oil as well. Like horseradish, mustards and turnips have been cultivated around the Mediterranean basin since agriculture began and I’d imagine they’d make for acceptable Maror too if horseradish was unavailable.
Little Gem Lettuce, or Lactuca sativa, also has origins in the Middle East. I’ve read that there are wall carvings in the temple of Pharaoh Senusret I who ruled over Egypt circa 1971 BC to 1926 BC. If lettuces don’t taste very bitter to you, that’s not to say that they didn’t have a stronger flavor in the old days. Wild lettuces are still found growing around the world as garden weeds and they’re still very bitter and are only palatable when picked quite young. The ritual feast that marks the beginning of the Passover is held on the evening of the 14th day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, which corresponds to late March or early April in the Gregorian calendar. It’s worth noting that in the Sinai, where the tribes of Israel fled after their Exodus from Egypt, wild lettuces are young and tender at this time of year, still fresh and leafy from the spring rains. Plant breeders have selected for lettuces that don’t taste bitter, but even modern lettuces will turn bitter when they don’t get enough water, or when they suffer stress from heat. Persistent summertime heat in Hollister is one reason that the Two Small Farms CSA lettuce harvest moves from Mariquita Farm to High Ground Organic Farm in Watsonville by April or May.
I trust that the lettuces we’ve harvested for our CSA customers this week are too mild to serve as convincing bitter greens but we have also harvested rapini greens. Rapini, or Brassica rapa, is a form of turnip greens. Yes, rapini is “bitter”, but only in a mild mustardy and savory way. And speaking of “savory,” did you know that the word comes to us from the Latin sapere, meaning “to taste or to know,” as does the Spanish cognate verb saber. English speaking cowboys in Texas borrowed saber from Mexican vaqueros and rebranded it as “savvy” to mean “well informed” or “perceptive.”
So what does savory mean?
Something that is savory can’t be purely sweet, or bitter, or salty, or sour, but somehow appeals to a fifth sense or experience where the other four flavors find a rich and satisfying balance. By the time we humans have some years on us hopefully we will have matured into savvy Homo sapiens, truly wise and men and women, capable of finding balance in an unsettling world.
As I research the Seder meal on Wikipedia and think about bitter herbs, I imagine that the Seder cook is trying to achieve a celebratory meal that teaches wisdom and tradition to the children even as it reminds the adults of the richness of their heritage, not just through words, but through flavors. Besides bitter herbs, the Seder table is always set with Karpas, which is some mild vegetable, like carrot or potato, which can be dipped in salt water or vinegar to recall the tears of slavery, and there is Charoset, which is a sweet paste of fruits and nuts meant to symbolize the mortar used by the Israelites to set the bricks of the buildings they built in Egypt— the sweet, the salty, the bitter, and the sour. Then the family gathers, the wine is brought to table, the chairs are pulled out, the first blessings are said, and everyone sits down together to savor life and tradition and each other’s company.
copyright 2010 Andy Griffin
note from julia: I know it’s been a while since Andy has sent out articles via The Ladybug Letter. He’s taking a bit of a writing break. When he has something to say, or I think one of our CSA newsletters would be interesting to all of you, we’ll post it here! thanks for all your continued support and well wishes as this talented writer mostly just tends to his farm.