Today on Project Gutenberg #51

I haven’t abandoned this series, I swear. I’ve simply run into a bad combination of having other projects to work on and not being very interested in any of the possible options I’ve tried to write about. But I’m going to keep working, and I hope you’ll pardon the interlude.

Anyway! Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets by John Evelyn

There are over 65,000 books digitized on Project Gutenberg, and that number keeps growing larger by the day. So when I was hitting the “random” button trying to find something which got my attention and this book somehow came up twice, I figured the universe was sending me a message.

So what is acetaria, what are sallets, and who was John Evelyn? The last question is the easiest to answer. John Evelyn was a 17th-century English writer and diarist. Over the course of his 66-year writing career, he witnessed dramatic like the English Civil War, the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy, the last Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of 1666.

But we’re not going to read about any of those. We’re going to read about salads.

See, Evelyn’s great passion in life seems to have been gardening and horticulture. He thought of it as a noble calling which many of history’s great leaders, warriors and statesmen had turned to following their years of public service. In fact, Evelyn was so invested in gardening that he was probably the first outspoken vegetarian in early modern England. And what is one way to share your cool new diet with the people around you? You collect and share recipes. Hence, the salads of Acetaria, published in 1699.

I think the best way to describe Acetaria is a cookbook wrapped up in a textbook. Evelyn approaches the topic of salad-making with a scientific precision. He gives you a list of all the plants — over seventy! — that could be added to a salad, which plants are associated with which humors, proper proportions to use, how to prepare other ingredients like salt and vinegar, etc. Did you know that you should only cut the salad herbs with a silver knife and serve them in a porcelain dish? Apparently we’ve been doing this salad thing all wrong.

Evelyn doesn’t really give us recipes in the traditional sense, as in “here is how to make specific varieties of salad.” The appendix of the book does explain how to best prepare each of the plants he namedrops and offers a few serving suggestions for most of them. One specific recipe he does give is for something called Oxoleon, which I believe is some sort of dressing:

Your Herbs being handſomely parcell’d, and ſpread on a clean Napkin before you, are to be mingl’d together in one of the Earthen glaz’d Diſhes: Then, for the Oxoleon; Take of clear, and perfectly good Oyl-Olive, three Parts; of ſharpeſt Vinegar (ſweeteſt of all CondimentsLimon, or Juice of Orange, one Part; and therein let ſteep ſome Slices of Horſe-Radiſh, with a little Salt; Some in a ſeparate Vinegar, gently bruiſe a Pod of Guinny-Pepper, ſtraining both the Vinegars apart, to make Uſe of Either, or One alone, or of both, as they beſt like; then add as much Tewkesbury, or other dry Muſtard grated, as will lie upon an Half-Crown Piece: Beat, and mingle all theſe very well together; but pour not on the Oyl and Vinegar, ’till immediately before the Sallet is ready to be eaten: And then with the Yolk of two new-laid Eggs (boyl’d and prepar’d, as before is taught) ſquaſh, and bruiſe them all into maſh with a Spoon; and laſtly, pour it all upon the Herbs, ſtirring, and mingling them ’till they are well and throughly imbib’d; not forgetting the Sprinklings of Aromaticks, and ſuch Flowers, as we have already mentioned, if you think fit, and garniſhing the Diſh with the thin Slices of Horſe-RadiſhRed BeetBerberries, &c.

Page 79

As you can see from that excerpt, the Gutenberg version is rather difficult to read because the spelling has not been updated for modern sensibilities. Readers who have experience with early modern texts will be able to parse out what Evelyn is saying, but other readers may be left behind.

With its antiquated language and long paragraph blocks, Acetaria is hard to get into. But I don’t mind, because I appreciate the spirit of the thing. It’s basically a learned old guy telling you all about one of his interests for about 150 pages. I can only imagine how Evelyn might react if he could see the produce section of a grocery store today. All these fruits and vegetables that were rare seasonal delicacies for him, available to us year-round. I want to know what he would think of croutons and ranch dressing.

I found this to be a fun little book. Take a look through it if you have the time. And the next time you’re hungry, maybe follow in the footsteps of John Evelyn and fix yourself a goodly sallet.

That’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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