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Celery, the mild-mannered straight man of the vegetable world, packs a puny six calories per stalk and — in my opinion — about as much flavor as a desk lamp. Yet despite its limitations, the fibrous plant has featured in Mediterranean and East Asian civilizations for thousands of years.
The paradox puzzled me enough that I called a bunch of specialists at the intersection of botany and anthropology to pick their brains. They shared their best guesses about how celery sneaked into our diets.
"Celery is odd, right?" says botanist Charles Davis of Harvard University. "Another thing that's always baffled me about umbellifers [the family to which celery belongs] is that most species are wickedly poisonous." Socrates famously died by consuming water hemlock, a member of that family.
Wild celery is native to the Mediterranean area, according to Davis, though archaeological remains from Switzerland have suggested that humans were transporting celery seeds as early as 4,000 B.C. Another variety of celery called "smallage" was present in China as early as the 5th century. Strong aroma may have boosted the appeal of the varieties in the Mediterranean and Asia.
But celery enthusiasts of yore were probably not munching it for taste, according to Carlos Quiros, a plant geneticist emeritus from the University of California, Davis. He says that people in Egypt, Rome and China used the wild plant medicinally for a slew of ailments, but "usually for hangovers or as aphrodisiacs." (Lonely hearts beware: There's no medical proof that celery helps with either.) The Greeks and Romans favored wild celery's leaves to weave victory crowns for athletes, Quiros says, as did the Egyptians. In fact, archaeologists discovered a celery wreath in Tutankhamun's tomb.
Based on my conversations, it seems as though culinary celery cultivation probably began in the 1600s in Italy or France. Horticulturalist Joe Masabni, of Texas A&M University's extension school, speculates that Mediterranean flavors assisted celery's big break.
"You saute anything with olive oil, and it tastes good," says Masabni, who thinks celery also might have served as a filler food, to "beef up" meals, as it were. "In the old days, you take chicken and it feeds one person. But you take a chicken and add it to soup with lots of vegetables, and you can feed a whole family." Davis thinks that during this period, Europeans began selecting for crunchy, succulent stems, while the Chinese cultivated a leafier variety, which today features in soups and sautes as "Chinese celery."
There's some debate about which individual first grew celery in the United States, but we know cultivation began in Michigan in the late 1800s. The crop grew well in the state's mild summers, and Dutch immigrants in the area seized the opportunity to farm the vegetable for a celery-curious American market. Today the average American consumes six pounds of celery per year, UC Davis' Quiros says.
Though detractors criticize the watery stalks for culinary blandness, celery does have some devotees.
"I love celery. It's awesome," says Robin Willis, a librarian in Frederick, Md. "I'm a big fan of foods that crunch, so celery is right up there. And you can dip it in stuff." She also calls celery the unsung hero of soups, infusing subtle — but critical — flavor.
But like the Mona Lisa or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, celery's flavor seems to defy description. When pressed to describe celery in musical terms, general manager of the Michigan Celery Promotion Cooperative, Gary Wruble, compared the vegetable to classic rock. "I don't know why," he says. "It's my favorite genre."
"I'm actually a pretty big fan of celery," says ethnobotanist Thomas Carlson of the University of California, Berkeley. He sings the praises of the vegetable's fibers, which he says aid digestion. He also tried to win me over to celery seed. "In the past two weeks," says Carlson, "I've had it in several meals, and it was quite tasty."