Coming across a funny little piece of vegetarian kitsch from 1911 when I was looking for something else entirely on the Internet, I was jolted by a memory of something I hadn’t thought about for years.
You don’t believe there can be such a thing as vegetarian kitsch? Me neither, up till now. Vegetarians in my experience tend to take themselves and their vegetables ultra-seriously. But there it was, in all in all its ’orrid glory, thanks to the indefatigable labours of those thrice-blessed people who work for the Library of Congress:
Margaret G. Hays (1874-1925) and Grace G. (Grace Gebbie) Drayton.
Vegetable Verselets for Humorous Vegetarians, by Margaret G. Hays; with illustrations by Grace G. Wiederseim. Philadelphia and London, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1911.
Margaret Gebbie Hays and Grace Gebbie Drayton (formerly Wiederseim) were sisters who wrote and illustrated both together and separately in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Grace G. Drayton produced the originals of the famous “Campbell’s Soup kids”, who appeared regularly in the ads from the early 1900s throughout the 20th century, revived at various times but always recognisable for their round, chubby cheeks. They sparked a whole industry of toys and memorabilia.
Above is the earliest example of the kids in a Campbell’s Soup ad that I’ve found. It’s from The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics, 1905. Below are the kids in their later, more familiar metamorphosis, in a full-colour ad from 1935:
From Attic Paper: “Original vintage magazine ad for Campbell's Soup with a particularly adorable illustration of three Campbell's Kids.
A nice vintage piece! Publication Year: 1935”
The Vegetable Oyster
Here’s the kitschy “verselet” by Margaret Gebbie Hays and the accompanying picture by Grace Gebbie Drayton that suddenly sparked my memories of Paris in the 1970s:
No, it doesn’t mean “gay” in the modern sense! This is 1911, remember? Ned is a merry and bright chap, a bit of a man-about-town. And here he is, with his plump dad:
Okay, the whole book’s impossibly kitschy and the “verselets” rarely have anything to do with the qualities of the vegetables as such, and you loathe it! I adore it: it’s so naïve that it’s gorgeous, and I’d like to think that way on the other side of the world in the bowels of the gigantic Library of Congress, someone else adored it, too.
I don’t think I’d have remembered what sort of vegetable an “oyster plant” was if you’d asked me out of the blue, but the poem and the picture together suddenly did it, and nearly twenty years since I’d stopped hoping to find it for sale Downunder—and forty years since I’d eaten it in France—I gasped: “Salsify!”
Vegetable Ambrosia, 1973
It’s a frosty winter night in Paris. By now I’m used to the way Gégé cooks the delicious French tinned petits pois to eat with his sautéed calf’s liver (see “Offal? Awful: Lily-Livered”, http://katywiddopsblog.blogspot.com.au/2016/02/offal-awful-lily-livered.html) but this is something quite new. A big tin, picture of pale yellow somethings on the label. He opens it, drains them and tips them into the pan that he’s just fried the foie de veau in.
“Connais pas? Des salsifis.”
I’m none the wiser, but okay, that’s their name. They look like long, very thin parsnips. That creamy colour, shading into pale yellow. We certainly never had them back home in EnZed. He sprinkles a bit more thyme onto them and stirs them very gently, letting them heat through.
Then we get to eat them with the veal liver.
Oh, my God! Ambrosia in the form of a vegetable! A faint taste of aniseed, but very, very mild, and a soft texture but not mushy.
Boy, that doesn’t cut it, does it? Well, you can’t really describe a taste, and even Jane Grigson, who’s come up with some pretty spot-on descriptions, won’t manage to describe the supreme delicacy of salsify, as I subsequently discover:
“Salsify came into this country [England] about 1700, … probably via France, though it was originally developed in Italy … Often it was called vegetable oyster, a name which one still finds in seedsmen’s catalogues, or oyster plant. One authority says that this must have been because it had a slightly oysterish flavour, and could be used in meat pies instead of oysters which were often added for piquancy in the days when they were cheap… If the flavour was once there, modern varieties have it no longer. … Other people have compared it to the parsnip, but this won’t do either. Parsnip has a softer texture than the clean waxy bite of salsify, and is much sweeter.
“…[It] has never really caught on, at least with the general public. Intelligent gardeners, from John Evelyn onwards, have always grown either salsify or scorzonera [its cousin, black-skinned]. People who write books on gardening have been pushing them from the 17th to the 20th century, but … one can rarely buy them.”
(Jane Grigson. Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book. Harmondsworth, England, Penguin, 1980, p. ) (First published: London : Michael Joseph, 1978.)
That taste of Paradise in a tin was in 1973. Back in the Antipodes I searched unavailingly for any form of salsify, fresh or tinned, for the next twenty years…
Nope. Nada. Nodda sausage. Even DJ’s “Food Hall”, which used to be quite up-market when I was first in Adelaide, didn’t stock it. Then they abolished the old David Jones department store and put up a shiny new one with a much, much worse food section, where the sneering assistants blatantly walk off and desert you in order to chat with their mates, leaving you wondering if you’re ever gonna get that piece of cheese at all. So I’ve stopped going there.
And I’ve given up looking for salsify. It can remain a lovely memory.
This classic French recipe (here, from Jane Grigson) is the derivation of Gégé’s simplified method for tinned salsify:
Salsify With Fines Herbes
If the salsify is to go with grilled and fried meat, chops, escallops and so on, this is the way to finish it.
Fry the blanched and cut up salsify in butter until golden-brown, scattering over it at the start the leaves of a good sprig of thyme, or a small branch of rosemary. When it is ready, put it into a hot dish and scatter generously with chopped parsley, tarragon and chives.
(Jane Grigson. Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book. Harmondsworth, England, Penguin, 1980.)
This simple recipe is much the best way to eat this delicate vegetable. Although Jane Grigson does provide quite a few other recipes none of them strike me as worth trying.
I did find an entry for salsify in a New Zealand book for the cook-gardener published in 1980 but although it tells you how to grow it, it admits: “Few varieties are available.” Its recipe suggestions aren’t much different from Jane Grigson’s fuller versions, including the big mistake, big—huge—of suggesting a cheese sauce with it. Did the writers even try it? If you’ve got a palate, cheese with anything aniseed-flavoured is totally revolting! Their “Salsify Pie” is even more so, incorporating both cheese and “anchovy or seafood sauce to taste”. I can’t even read it without feeling nauseated. (Mary Browne, Helen Leach & Nancy Tichborne. The Cook’s Garden: For Cooks Who Garden and Gardeners Who Cook. Wellington, [N.Z.], A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1980)
Back to Ned Oyster Plant’s Time
Salsify or “oyster plant” must have been grown by English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic at the turn of the 19th century, because not only does it appear in the American Vegetable Verselets of 1911, along with such everyday veg as potatoes, peas and onions, it turns up in the English Cassell's Vegetarian Cookery in 1891. I’m giving you the recipe because it strikes me as delightful. Take the lemon option, not the vinegar:
Boiled salsify makes a very delicious salad.
Take some white salsify, scrape it, and instantly throw it into vinegar and water, by which means you will keep it a pure white.
Then, when you have all ready, throw it into boiling water, slightly salted, boil it till it is tender, throw it into cold water, and when cold take it out, drain it and dry it, cut it up into small half-inch pieces (or put it in whole, in sticks, into a salad-bowl), sprinkle a little chopped blanched parsley over the top, dress in the ordinary way with oil and white French vinegar, and be sure to use white pepper, not black; if white wine vinegar is objected to, the juice of a hard fresh lemon is equally good, if not better.
(A.G. (Arthur Gay) Payne (1840-1894). Cassell’s Vegetarian Cookery: A Manual of Cheap and Wholesome Diet. London, Cassell, 1891)
A Little Botany
True salsify, with a pale-skinned root that’s very much the same colour as parsnip skin, is Tragopogon porrifolius. But the French Wikipédia tells us that this is rarely cultivated nowadays and that the salsifis sold these days is almost always “la scorsonère (Scorzonera hispanica)”, called scorzonera or black salsify in English, which has a dark-skinned root.
And In Conclusion…
Salsify doesn’t look anything like its raw state when it’s properly peeled (you need to spend time scraping it) and nicely cooked. This is the best picture I could find. It's from http://paleofood.com/recipes/veggies-ovenroastedsalsify.htm I’m no advocate of silly “paleo” diets, or of roasting delicate vegetables, but the recipe given, “Oven Roasted Salsify”, is at least simple.
Actually there are many other recipes for salsify—certainly In France, where most of Jane Grigson’s originate. But if you are lucky enough to obtain some or grow it, don’t bother looking for them. Most combos will drown its distinctive subtle taste. The recipes on the Net from today’s British cooking gurus, who use the dark-rooted variety, are largely foul. Just keep it simple. I know we’re in the 21st century now, but that doesn't mean that mucked-about-for-hours, combined with everything up-market you can think of, and horribly handled, is best. KISS.