I have a friend who I believe, would never say a bad word about anyone. At least, not an unwarranted word. That is until the day I discovered her steadfast, unwavering hatred for the cucumber. I have to admit, I was a little shocked at her revulsion to this seemingly ordinary piece of produce.
This prompted me to do a little research into why someone could harbour such repugnance to a salad item. It was from this I discovered that the cucumber’s
history is steeped in prejudice.
Where did this hatred arise from for such a humdrum vegetable (the cucumber is actually classified as a fruit though it is more often referred to as a vegetable)?
Patrick Dillon’s ‘The Last Revolution’ re-counts the Bishop of Peterborough addressing the Earl of Nottingham in 1689, referring to a new oath; “I regard it like a plate of cucumber dressed with oil and vinegar and yet fit for nothing but to throw out the window”. This disregard was mirrored by author Dr Samuel Johnson, when he declared, “A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out as good for nothing”.
In the late 17th century, a number of articles in contemporary health publications reported that uncooked plants brought on summer diseases and should be avoided by children. An old English proverb supports this by stating, ‘Raw cucumber makes the churchyards prosperous’. The cucumber kept this vile reputation for an inordinate amount of time, gaining the name ‘cowcumbers’ from the antiquated saying “fit only for the consumption of cows”. Samuel Pepys (famous for the diary he kept for a decade) wrote on September 22, 1663, “This day Sir W Batten tells me that Mr Newhouse is dead of eating cowcumbers”. Richard Harris Barham (1788-1845) in ‘The Confession’ also conveys, “’Tis not her coldness, father, that chills my labouring breast; it’s that
confounded cucumber I’ve ate and can’t digest”.
There was a period of time, in the Victorian era however, when the cucumber came back into vogue, and was all at once associated with the upper class of British Society. It is said that those who ate these foods for leisure, could afford to consume foods with very little nutritive worth, as they generally weren’t doing anything overly strenuous with their days. Stereotypically, cucumber sandwiches formed an integral part of a ‘well-mannered’ afternoon tea. They have often been used as a type of short-hand in literature and film to identify the upper class. Jack, in the first scene of ‘The Importance of being Ernest’ exclaims, “Hallo! Why all these cups? Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young? Who is coming to tea?” implying the cucumber sandwich routine was only employed for special happenings and distinguished guests.
This aside, I did find a very interesting notion of why my dear friend may have developed her tremendous dislike for this so-called polite sandwich filling.
Scientists have discovered such a thing as the ‘bitter receptor gene’. This is a genetically-mediated sensitivity to the bitter taste of a certain chemical in cucumbers. The gene determines whether you can taste the bitterness of that particular chemical or not. It’s also been associated with a diminished fondness for other vegetables; such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage and some melons. This may explain why the poor cucumber has been given such a hard time in the past.
So whether you adore or abhor the cucumber, you have to admit, they have had quite a shameful history. Whatever happened to ‘as cool as a cucumber’?