My last post elicited some strong reactions. The editorial board of Broads of the Beltway is in strong agreement regarding the sass about Rustik Tavern, and about DC pizza generally. Others (I am not identifying them as ‘my friends and co-workers,’ because I want to give you the impression that this blog is more popular than it is,) have made strong cases for other DC pizza joints, have defended the fancy pizza movement, or have accused me of harboring Chicago-native fanaticism that effectually precludes objective pizza evaluation. I was most delighted by the feedback of bold commenter Rob, whom I swear I haven’t met, who asked, “Is there some kind of honor in being closed-minded and bullheaded for no discernible reason?” To which I say: Rob, I appreciate the flattery, but I do not believe I am worthy of much honor, insofar as I have never won a duel or donned a monocle. As for being closed-minded and bullheaded, they are really just old hobbies of mine. That’s a discernible enough reason for me!
The real point of contention about the last post was the relative obscurity of watercress, which Rob informed me “has been a popular foodstuff in the United States since the 50′s.” Indeed, several readers weighed in on public awareness of the existence of watercress. Some apparently moonlight as passionate watercress advocates, whereas others admitted to there being a few holes in their watercress education. The most memorable exchange was with my friend Leslie, who traced her own discovery of watercress to the book Happy Birthday, Samantha! from the American Girl franchise. Our collective recollection of the plot was scrappy – we suspected that the spirited, spunky Samantha made Victorian society faint all over its hand-fans because she befriended a servant girl, or something – but Leslie is certain that the social barriers were broken that day over watercress sandwiches, which were served at the party. As Commenter Rob pointed out, I am imbued with a deep ‘willfull ignorance’ and cannot be bothered to fact-check the original book, but Leslie has a memory like a tack (and, it is worth noting – is very small, and thus quite information dense.) Anyway, I don’t remember the food served at the party – I was more concerned about her birthday dress, which I naturally owned – but if Leslie was right, we have a problem. You see, if Rob was correct in his assertion that watercress has been popular since the ‘50s, why did Samantha Parkington, fictional character and doll, serve it at her 10th birthday party in 1904? Was she simply serving unpopular food, or is this an example of an anomaly in the American Girl Universe? And, if so many people in my life have been running around town and living their lives with the explicit knowledge of watercress, why in the hell were they so intent on keeping it a secret??? Luckily, I already had the two most important tools one needs during a historical mystery adventure: Google, a lunch hour and a blind faith in the internet as a reputable source base.
Watercress, it turns out, is a proud edible plant with a rich history. Here are some things I have learned.
Watercress is apparently lauded for its healing properties. According to mythology, Zeus ate watercress to fortify himself against his enemies. This sounds dismissible, until you remember that we are talking about Zeus. He is at the top of the God food chain (if, that is, you don’t mind going along with my clunky metaphor by asserting that Greek Gods ate one another, which I suspect they did not.) He had an impressive amount of resources at his disposal by which to fortify himself, but chose nonetheless to do so with a small, peppery plant. In 460 BC, Hippocrates (whom you might know from his Oath,) insisted that his hospital be built close to a stream, so that watercress could be grown nearby and used to heal patients. If I were a hospital inpatient, I must admit that I would not feel too confident in my treatment course if I realized my chances of survival had been pinned on the unassuming plant growing in the river out my window. But watercress was good enough for Zeus, and in this scenario, I’ll take what I can get – because it is 460 BC, and I am illiterate and without internet access.
As far as I can tell, watercress pretty much bumped along the annals of history at a typical pace for a while, probably remaining in the places where it was indigenous. I don’t know, maybe it was there when Anne Boleyn was beheaded? That would make sense. I can say that the railroad was a major boon for the watercress publicity tour, and now the United States is the 3rd largest producer of watercress worldwide. Watercress has pervaded our shared culture to such a degree that several people I know have contended “yes, I’ve heard of it.”
And so, watercress, I apologize for not knowing about you.* Your resume is impressive, and my head has simply been in the proverbial sand. I am sure you are great. You seem so nice. But, as for the assertion that you aren’t as esoteric a vegetable as I made you out to be? I am going to stand by my own “seemingly arbitrary standards.”
* My Google search led me to the revelation that I actually have eaten watercress. It was in food truck bulgogi. I mean, it was fine. It’s watercress, you know?