The consumption pattern of culturally distinct expatriates has always been an intriguing and complex social and cultural inquiry. Ethnic affinity is a key factor that helps an expat decide what to grow, what to buy and what to eat. A striking example of ethnic affinity could be found in the cultivation of European and local varieties of lettuce in 19th century Poona.
Since time immemorial, the beneficial qualities of lettuce have asserted themselves. A kind of hieratic halo of nobility seems to envelop the plant. He entered the paschal meal under the law of Moses, with the lamb and the unleavened bread; the Romans believed that taking it in the evening was the most effective way to ensure a good night’s rest, and the anchorites of Thebes owed it to their ability to “resist the demon of flesh”.
Lettuce, in the 19th century, was more popular than it ever was. It was the most essential ingredient in any salad worth its salt. It was not contraindicated in the diet of any disease; it could be eaten by anyone, no matter how sick, with many benefits.
19th century Europeans preferred both kinds of lettuce, cabbage lettuce and the long upright lettuce called cos-lettuce, each with many sub-varieties. It was a matter of taste which of these two was to be preferred. Anglo-Indians preferred cos for sweetness and tenderness. Cos was also appreciated because it could be simmered. They obviously tried to cultivate it on the land they had chosen to inhabit.
European growers believed that it was essential in lettuce cultivation that “the seeds should be of very high quality in order to obtain beautiful, crisp and tender hearts and leaves”. The general belief was that there was no vegetable from which the grower should be more careful to obtain superior seed than lettuce. There have been complaints that the seeds of Patna “do not always come true”. Therefore, there was a huge demand for European seeds. Most European growers rejected ‘peasant seeds’ altogether and insisted that European products be sown.
In May 1864, the Agri-Horticulture Society of Bombay received “English seeds” from London which were then sent to Poona. But much to the disappointment and annoyance of the Society and its customers, they turned out to be a complete failure. The majority of these have complained that the seeds of nohl kohl, cauliflower, cabbage and lettuce do not even germinate. There was a general complaint that the seeds without exception were bad. But further investigations revealed that the failure could be attributed to factors such as soil and weather conditions.
But this wasn’t the first attempt at lettuce farming in Poona. Black seed lettuce, closely resembling Bath Cos, was introduced to the city by a clergyman in the early 1850s. market gardeners because it was large and well packed. Consumers loved it because it was crispy and delicious. As no annual plant brought from England could then be grown for thirty years at Poona and retain all its original characteristics, the variety was called the Poona Brown Cos.
It was the large lettuce of the true cos form, and with black seeds; leaves, rich brown outside, greenish white inside, tender, crisp and of good flavor. But the Europeans initially treated the variety with great disdain.
Mr. Woodrow, the famous horticulturist, has endeavored for years to make the Europeans of Poona and Bombay aware of the favorable qualities of the Poona Brown Cos. He made sure that the seeds of the said variety were available in the local market. In the 1890s the seed was available from any Poona seed dealer at 4 annas an ounce.
Poona Brown Cos seed kept for three to four years; one-year-old seeds were considered the best for sowing because the plants did not flower and bolted quickly. The Department of Agriculture has advised testing seeds over a year old by sowing a few seeds in a small seed tray, before sowing them in the field.
He also advised Europeans to start sowing at the beginning of August. “The seed is rather small and in some cases may be in the ground perhaps a month or two before anything sown will germinate. It is very subject to insect depredation, fire ants in particular, which devour it greedily, so it is a good plan to sow the seedling in a large, shallow seed tray, and isolate it by placing it on an empty flowerpot standing in a container of water. must be made light and fluffy by mixing in leaf mold and a little sand,” reads a brochure published by the department.
Around the same time, there were seeds available in Poona that came from Persia. Then there were also Patna seeds. Patna seed plants only needed six weeks to be ready for cutting; while English seeds required eight to ten weeks from the date of sowing. But the Department of Agriculture has repeatedly urged growers to switch to the Poona variety of lettuce.
While many growers have taken a liking to the landrace, one particular problem has arisen. They observed that the insects feasted on the lettuce grown in their gardens.
An interesting and useful observation on the habits of insects consuming lettuce and cabbage was then made by Dr. T Cook, Principal of the Poona College of Science. He grew radishes, lettuce, cabbage, and other kinds of lettuce in boxes on the upper apartment of his residence, and observed that insects did not attack the plants grown there, while plants similar ones were being destroyed by insects in his garden.
Cook deduced that the cause might be that the locomotor power of many insects that caused serious injury was limited; and the distance from the nearest plants infested with destructive insects, in this case, was sufficient to prevent attacks, and allowed young plants of cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, radishes and other plants of the same family to being bred at a season when these could not be grown with ordinary care in the garden.
Cook published his findings in a small pamphlet in 1882. He noted that his method enabled people at some stations to enjoy a supply of vegetables much earlier than they had then. In a separate section he advised on how to protect lettuce and cabbage in gardens from insects – “part of the garden may be covered with a thick layer of dead leaves and brush which, if burned , would destroy the insect eggs inside”. range of fire. In the middle of this prepared plot, tender seedlings would certainly be safer from injury than in the middle of plants infested with insect pests”.
Thanks to these experiments carried out by Cook in Poona, many growers have been able to save their products from insects. Growing vegetables in crates on the upper floors of residences gradually became a popular practice.
Poona Brown Cos rose to popularity in the early 20th century and became the dominant variety of lettuce for sale in the local market.
Chinmay Damle is a scientific researcher and cooking enthusiast. He writes here about the food culture of Pune. He can be contacted at [email protected]