During a Spring road trip with Karen, we couldn’t help noticing vast patches of purple, pink, and white wildflowers, like clouds mysteriously dissolving into the darkening woods. We knew they were only the phlox-like Hesperis (Hesperis matronalis), but were strangely moved by seeing wave after wave of them, mile after mile.
In one of those weird associations that brains create, completely on their own, the title of Longfellow’s poem merged with the wildflowers, blurting out, “It’s a wreck of hesperis!” Almost simultaneously, we realized that —while terms of venery (names for groups of animals that reflect the nature of the beasts, such as “a pride of lions,” “a gaggle of geese,” “a murder of crows,” or, famously, An Exaltation of Larks are common — no such collective terms exist for the vegetable kingdom.
Over the next few hours we came up with dozens of what we would eventually call “terms of vegery.” Over the next two years, we shamelessly added hundreds more (such as “a golightly of hollies,” “a pursing of tulips,” “a greasing of palms,” and “a roberta of flax”), most of which involve egregious puns. We took photographs to accompany them – eventually creating a book of 239 entries, divided into five faux-scientific families: Splendifera (plants grown for their looks); Edibilia (plants grown for food); Inedibilia (you can figure that one out for yourself); Utilitaria (plants we use, but rarely eat); and Untouchabilia (plants that assault our noses, burn, invade our gardens, itch, poison, scratch, or otherwise inconvenience us).
If you’re reading this at all, you’ve probably been expecting something vaguely culinary — and wondering what this is doing in Roll’s food section. Using the principle outlined in Tom Lehrer’s song, “The Old Dope Peddler” (“He gives the kids free samples, because he knows full well that today’s young innocent faces will be tomorrow’s clientele”), we’re giving you—free—your first few hits of the 75 entries from the Edibilia section, beginning with its introduction.
As lovely as are the Splendiferae—and while they do reward our efforts in their flowerbeds with visual and aromatic pleasure — sometimes beauty, alone, just doesn’t cut it. They may look good enough to eat but, alas, eating them is not usually one of the options on our tables.
As Clara Peller might very well have said, “Where’s the beefsteak tomato?”
“The beefsteak tomatoes,” as it were, are usually grown in a different garden, or in some farmer’s field, or orchard, or even growing wild — either nearby, or halfway around the world. They are the Edibiliae, and their beauty is of a more primal nature; they are the residents of the vegetable kingdom we love to eat.
Some of this is excerpted from Gary Allen and Karen Philipp’s Terms of Vegery, a Kindle book that’s readable on a number of different readers. Gary’s currently working on three other books (he just can’t help himself), not all of which are about food. Check out his website and blog.