…three if by iceberg.

I recently read a food-writing classic on the stories and history behind nine of the world’s most common foods. Want to know more about corn, salt, butter, chicken, rice, lettuce, olive oil, lemon juice or ice cream? Thanks to Margaret Visser, you can…in her 1986 Much Depends on Dinner. Each chapter is either a dish or garnish; in their totality, they make for a meal and some full-course reading.

I enjoyed learning how Iceberg lettuce landed its name. The miniature bowling ball-sized “heads” we now know as such were originally called Imperial, from the namesake California valley in which they (and other hybrids) were first concocted by R&D labs set on turning out lettuce to compete against the then popular New York varietal.

Lettuce was and is subject to militant-sounding perishability. According to Visser, these include brown blight, downy mildew, cabbage loopers, fleabeetles, thrips and armyworms (none of which I’d like to share my sleeping bag with). Add to those hazards the “field-to-table” distance factor that brings on rotting in transit and wilting while waiting, and you can see that “Imperial” was not combat-ready for the war on spoilage. As well, given that this research was taking place from the late 1920’s to the 1940’s, nor was the name (even with its alphanumeric versions) culturally suitable to a relatively young, heavily first-generation, immigrant nation.

What to do? Reach back to another American variety (a red-tinged leaf) called Iceberg that had initially been dismissed for its lack of commercial value. Nothing like repurposing an underutilized verbal asset. “Green” at its freshest, creative best. The name stuck like a wet tongue on a wintry metal pole.