pierre laszlo

Apium graveolens var. dulce

Ce-le-ry: three syllables. The etymology is reminiscent of the game, by children and by partying adults, when a word is whispered in an ear and repeated. After a few participants, to everyone’s hilarity, it has become unrecognizable from the original utterance.

Originally, it was se-ri-no — rhymes richly with merino — in Mycenian Greek, i.e., when it was written in Linear B script. It became se-li-non in Greek. Romans kept it as selinon. Italians changed it to selero, plural seleri, from which the French derived céleri and the English celery.

The word goes back millennia, the plant likewise: celery leaves and flowers were part of the garlands found in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun, popularly known as King Tut (died 1323 BCE).

When did use of the celery switch from honoring the dead to pleasing the living? We don’t know. In any case, it became a kitchen vegetable centuries ago. Interestingly, to this day, it shows cultural differences in its use.

In North America, the dominant cultivar is known as the Pascal celery. It is chosen for being crisp and tender. The stalks are grown in tight, straight, parallel bunches. They are typically marketed fresh that way, without roots and just a little green leaf remaining. Cut pieces of celery last only a few hours before they turn brown. Few American restaurants include it in green salads because it cannot be prepared far enough ahead of time, a reflection on their organization.

Thus, the multitudinous uses of both celery and its celery root cousin, known as celeriac, in French cuisine have yet to become full part of American culture. This is not for lack of trying, on the part of admirable go-betweens, such as Julia Child. She made a gallant attempt, for instance, to import céleri rémoulade, by pointing out its kinship with cole slaw : “Underneath the brown, wrinkled exterior of celery root there is white flesh with a bright celery flavor and crisp texture that, when finely shredded, makes a delicious slaw like salad.” (Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 1961).

This plant has a reputation as an aphrodisiac. Is it on account of its shape, a stalk crowned with leaves? French has a few proverbs of that ilk , such as Si l'homme savait l'effet du céleri, il en planterait dans son coutil (if the male knew the power of celery, he would plant it in his pants).

Actually, celery contains the androstenone steroid. This hormone and its odor stimulate arousal in females.  Women single out olfaction as the sensory perception that predominantly determines their sexual response and mate choice. However, half of the population are unable to smell this androstenone scent, an ability that can nevertheless be re-educated, according to a study from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

Which brings up “celery salt”. This seasoning, at least in many cafés and on board commercial flights, seems to be the obligatory accompaniment to tomato juice. It enjoys something of a reputation as an aphrodisiac as well. Besides confessing not having noticed anything of the sort in a few decades of sampling this spice, I should stress that it has nothing to do with salt, except for being likewise a powder. It is made, I believe, from ground celery seeds.

In other biomedical applications, eating celery lowers hypertension and somewhat remedies circulatory problems. indeed, during Classical Antiquity, celery was cultivated for its medicinal properties. Only much later, during the seventeenth century, was it domesticated in Italy for nutritive uses.

Accordingly, drinks based upon celery extracts have existed. Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic originated in 1869 and was produced for many years by the Scholz Bottling Company in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. When the Federal Government objected to the word ‟tonic”, the company in 1900 changed the brand name to Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray (soda).

The conclusion, as it ought to be, belongs here to the poet:

Celery, raw
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.

Ogden Nash