Lettuce

Lettuce, the salad standard, has a history that dates back thousands of years with use as a healing herb.

KODIAK — In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blacklisted romaine lettuce several times. The culprit: E. coli outbreaks. The last alert advised consumers and all food service establishments to stop buying romaine immediately and to throw away any remaining lettuce, even if some of it had been eaten without noticeable effects.

So, what exactly is romaine lettuce? How is it different from leaf lettuce? Is there a nutritional difference? And what’s the deal with head lettuce? 

Your confusion is understandable. Lettuce help you take a closer look at the world of salad greens.

To be fair, my seed orders have started arriving in the mail. So, I’m pretty much through with perusing lists of lettuce. Thank goodness. It was no easy task.

For one thing, lettuce loves Kodiak. All kinds of lettuce. One seed catalog listed 74 different kinds of lettuce. Names varied from the obvious — Red Salad Bowl and Green Butter Oak — to obscure: Mayan Jaguar and Forellenschluss. 

As an annual, lettuce is easy to grow, loves cool temperatures and thrives in containers, as well as raised beds; in hoophouses and outside. 

 

WHAT BEGAN

AS A WEED

Lettuce was first cultivated by ancient Egyptians; think 2680 BC. At one time, lettuce was revered mostly for its oil-rich seeds. Then, at some point, it was selectively bred for its edible leaves. Soon traders distributed lettuce seeds to the Greeks and Romans. It was dubbed “lactuca” (lac meaning milk in Latin).

By the 18th century, cultivars had spread to Europe. Now, over 1,000 named lettuce varieties are grown around the world with 56 percent of it coming from China. 

Early cultivars of lettuce are thought to be about 30 inches tall, much like the modern-day romaine. Lettuce appears in many medieval references, especially as a medicinal herb. Hildegard of Bingen, was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher and Christian mystic. Considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany, Hildegard mentioned lettuce in her writings on medicinal herbs between 1098 and 1179.

 

MORE THAN A

SALAD GREEN

Most Americans know lettuce as a base for dinner salads. To fully embrace the beauty of lettuce though, you need to think beyond the bowl. Lettuce is added to soups, sandwiches and wraps; it can also be grilled. One variety, the woju or asparagus lettuce, also known as celtuce, is grown for its stems, which can be eaten raw or cooked.

Although most lettuce grown is used as a vegetable, a minor amount is used in the production of tobacco-free cigarettes.

Lettuce also has mild narcotic properties. In fact, it was once called “sleepwort” by the Anglo-Saxons. This narcotic effect is a property of two compounds that are found in the white liquid (latex) in the stems of lettuce, called lactucarium or “lettuce opium.”

 

HOW DO I LOVE

LETTUCE, LET ME COUNT THE WAYS

Lettuce is an excellent source of vitamin K and vitamin A. The darker the variety, the greater amount of beta-carotene. Varieties can be lumped into five groups:

1. Looseleaf: Rather than tightly wrapped heads, loose-leaf lettuce grows as  luxuriant whorls and mounds of leaves for salads, sandwiches and mixes. Examples: Red Sails, Tango and Waldmann’s, a pre-1880 heirloom.

2. Oakleaf: A looseleaf lettuce that, as the name suggests, grows thinner at the tips.

3. Butterhead: Smooth texture, pleasant crunch and sweeter than most lettuces. 

4. Romaine: Also known as Cos, this is your large, crisp-stemmed leaves that tightly wrap into a tall plant. I think of romaine as the Caesar salad green because that is the only lettuce my dad would use to make his famous salads. Nothing else would do. No romaine, no Caesar salad.

5. Iceberg or Crisphead

Iceberg lettuce is an iconic American food. According to a 1904 seed catalog, Iceberg takes its name from the small indentations in the leaf that fill with dewdrops which gave them a crystalline appearance. 

I mentioned that lettuce is easy to grow. Indeed, it’s one of the first seedlings I transplant to the garden, sometimes as early as March or April. Thirty years ago, I tested lettuce’s hardiness by successfully overwintering plants under plastic covers, the forerunner of today’s hoophouses.

 

TIPS FOR GROWING LETTUCE

I’ll cover this more fully in a future column. However, in a nutshell, lettuce can be grown as seedlings or directly sown on top of the soil. Slugs are its primary enemy. They can be controlled with Sluggo, hand-picking and beer traps. Diseases include bottom rot and gray mold. Not pretty.

Speaking of diseases, what caused the CDC to blacklist romaine lettuce? The issue had more to do with how it’s handled for marketing than how it’s grown. The “vacuum cooling method” increases the survival rates of E. Coli  and Salmonella bacteria. E. coli are bacteria that live naturally in the intestines of cattle, poultry and other animals. Last fall’s outbreak was traced to lettuce grown in Arizona and California, which supplies most of the U.S. market. Word to the wise: buy organic or grow your own.

While doing research for this article, I turned to my Fedco seed catalog. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read: “Icebergs face heat and stress with grace and tolerance — lettuce lessons for our politicians?”

One more thing, a request to everyone reading this column:

 

HOW TO DONATE FOOD TO CG

The Coast Guard has set up a pop-up food bank on base. Call it a Kodiak food pantry. To donate food items, bring them to the base police station at the entrance to the base. All items are welcome, including home-canned salmon and venison, eggs, milk, orange juice, bagels, bread, peanut butter and jelly, yogurt, cereal, canned soups, beans, chili, pasta, rice NS spaghetti sauce. For more information, contact 307-640-3983.

Marion Owen has over 30 years of experience as a teacher and columnist. She’s on a mission to help busy people enhance their daily lives. To contact Marion or to sign up for her “Goodness from Kodiak” newsletter, go to her blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com.

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