Introduction

Appears in

This is not a vegetarian cookbook. It is a compendium of great recipes in which vegetables from all over the world play a leading role. Like its predecessor, The Cook’s Canon, it contains 101 classic recipes every informed cook should know about. My ruling principle in making this personal—but I hope not capricious—selection was the same as for the earlier collection: to winnow 101 recipes into a plausible pantheon of the most brilliant influential, delicious, and enduring vegetable dishes human beings had created since they learned to cook.

This is also not a primer of basic techniques for cooking vegetables. Some of the recipes are very basic indeed, but they are here because they are remarkable conceptions, remarkable to prepare and remarkable to eat.

My professional interest in vegetables, as a gastronomic writer and historian, began thirty years ago, when I annoyed the editor of Natural History magazine, Alan Ternes, with a column on cannibalism from the consumer’s point of view. It was based on ethnographic reports and ended with a recipe for pain de cervelles, an haute cuisine “brain loaf” whose main ingredient was specified as coming from any higher mammal. Alan saw this sort of anthropological jape as a dead end. “Anthropology isn’t a real science anyway, ” he said over lunch at a dismal Upper West Side Manhattan restaurant near the American Museum of Natural History, which then published Natural History. “Why don’t you switch your focus to botany?”

“I don’t know anything about botany, ” I said.
“You will, ” he said, grinning. “Soon. Your next deadline is only two weeks off.”
For the next eighteen years, I followed his advice and mostly avoided the relatively limited menagerie of edible fauna for the infinitely ramified and fascinating domain of plants. At a certain point, I realized that I was a journalist within a scientific field—economic botany—plants in human affairs. There is no broader or more important subject.
My past as a science writer and as a classicist has shaped this book. The history of cultivated plants and their names is everywhere in these pages. But my goal is not so much to teach as to delight, to give vegetables their historic, social, and scientific due, to ennoble them while also celebrating the sensual qualities that have brought them to the table over millennia.
For botanists, “vegetable” is a clearly defined technical term, quite separate from “fruit.” For cooks and eaters, the distinction is less precise but easy to understand in practice. Botanically, a fruit is a plant’s sexual part, the organ with the seeds. The rest of the plant is vegetable—roots, stems, leaves, and so forth. This does not mean that plants always reproduce sexually. But when they spread through root systems or grafts, or when gardeners put cuttings in soil, this is called vegetative reproduction. It is often the best way to “reproduce” a plant exactly, since it does not mix the genome of two parents—the essence of sexual reproduction—but preserves the genetic makeup of a single plant whose qualities have recommended it to a human grower. Without vegetative reproduction, agriculture would be unpredictable, in fact nearly impossible, since you could never know what crop you would be getting. Farming would be a crapshoot instead of a scientific improvement on nomadic hunting and gathering.
As you see, I still haven’t lost my penchant for anthropology. Or, as I would prefer to call it, my reflex to stress the human side of economic botany. And it is precisely the human element—common sense—that trumps the neat botanical categories of vegetable and fruit. Botanists themselves, in my experience, are quite ready to follow ordinary usage where a strict adherence to professional terminology would only spread confusion and consternation. Even at a lunch exclusively attended by botanists, you would not be likely to hear anyone call a tomato a fruit. Although it is a fruit in the parlance of botany. Only lay pedants insist on pointing out that tomatoes have seeds, as do peppers, beans, okra, squash, and cucumber.
The banana is a textbook example of all these tangled considerations. The “banana” we buy in groceries, with its yellow peel and soft fleshy pulp, is a fruit from any perspective. Botanists go a step further and call it a berry because it has a skin and a soft, seed-bearing interior. Except that cultivated bananas don’t have seeds, just their remnants, tiny black spots visible when the fruit is sliced. Cultivated banana plants reproduce vegetatively, from fleshy underground “corms” (fleshy stems easy to mix up with bulbs, which are buds). Furthermore, an economically important variety of banana, the plantain or cooking banana, is almost always considered a vegetable by those who consume it.

In the end, eaters decide what is a vegetable and what is not. Speaking broadly, fruits are sweet and soft and mostly can be eaten out of hand, or in desserts and specific fruit dishes. Vegetables, even the ones that are technically fruits, are most often eaten either raw in salads or cooked as part of the main meal. Anyone can think of exceptions. There is always tomato ice cream to upset the applecart of sensible discussion.

I have never met anyone who did not intuitively understand all of this. So on with the show. Enjoy it. Disagree with the choices of recipes. But cook them before you throw this book in the compost heap.