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Forklore: (De)Stalking celery

We think of celery as a vegetable -- a salad vegetable, mostly, contributing a cool, sweet crunch, although we do throw celery into soups and stews, and Cajun cookery would be unthinkable without celery fried with onions and bell peppers.

Up to about 300 years ago, though, you'd never have eaten a celery stalk willingly, no matter how stuffed with cream cheese. The original form of celery, which grows wild over much of Europe, is known in English as smallage. Its stalks are so bitter they actually cause numbness in the mouth.

Only the leaves of smallage have ever been eaten. They were used like parsley, as celery leaves are still often used in Italian cookery. Smallage leaves and flat-leaf parsley were considered so much alike that the same word was used for both of them in Latin (apium) and Greek (selinon).

The milder celery we know was developed in Italy during the 17th Century, and it pretty much pushed smallage off the culinary map. In a few places, the new celery was called by the old name for smallage (in Spanish, for instance, it's apio), but in most of Europe, the Italian dialect word sellari has replaced it.

So if you ever see a supposed ancient Roman or medieval recipe that calls for celery stalks, don't believe it. And certainly don't go shopping for smallage stalks.

-- Charles Perry

 
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