As a carrier of disease and death.
Samuel Pepys wrote ‘Mr. Newhouse is dead of eating cowcumbers’ in his diary in 1663, and the ‘prickly melon’ seemed to strike fear into plague-stricken 17th-century Europe. 18th-century American medical journals warned against eating cucumbers for the danger of food poisoning, which made it unpopular there for a century. Even in 2011, an outbreak of E. Coli which killed 53 people in Germany was blamed (incorrectly) on cucumbers. The same thing happened during a salmonella scare in the USA three years later, in 2014.
Like the tomato it so often shares a plate with, the cucumber is botanically classified as a berry. In 2009 an international team of scientists coded the entire set of chromosomes in a cucumber genome, marking where it split off from its close, colorful cousin: the rock melon.
Cucumis sativus is native to the Himalayas, and it was first domesticated by people in India 3,000-4,000 years ago. Easy to grow in a range of climates (and helped along by Arab traders), the cucumber spread from India across Eurasia in all directions, leaving its mark on regional cuisines as it went.
There’s a pickled cucumber trail stretching from Korean oiji to French cornichons. A refreshing river of cucumber-yogurt sauce runs from Indian raita through Turkish cacik to Greek tzatziki. And land covered by the cucumber salad empire exceeds that of the Mongol, Roman and Persian empires combined, encompassing China’s pai huang gua, Indian kachumber,Iranian Shirazi and the various, vibrant cucumber-tomato salads found across the Balkans and the Caucasus.
I seem to be in a pickle
But of course you are
Cool as a cucumber
96% of it is water
Half of it is how good it looks
On your eyes when you’re hungover
Once cucumbers reached Europe they were clearly a hit within its highest echelons.
Roman emperor Tiberius supposedly wanted a cucumber on his table every single day of the year, leading his gardeners to develop a system of moveable garden boxes that could be wheeled around to catch as much of the winter sunlight as possible.
Louis XIV’s demand to have a steady supply of cucumbers really kicked things up a technological gear: borrowing an idea used for melons, Jean-Baptiste la Quintinue (Louis’ gardener at Versailles) adopted an early version of greenhouse growing by planting cucumbers under glass to trap the sun’s heat and accelerate their growing speed.
It could just be media-savvy PR, but numerous movie theatres around the world reported finding cucumbers in cinemas left behind after screenings of Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker…
Native Americans developed an efficient method of fishing akin to fishing with dynamite: throwing smashed up roots from wild cucumber plants into rivers and ponds, since they contain a poisonous substance that stuns fish.
Also called manroot, every part of these wild North American cucumbers is toxic, unlike their distant Eurasian relative that Christopher Columbus introduced to Haiti in 1494.
In the 19th century, cucumbers were grown inside glass tubes to make sure they were straight enough for discerning eaters — and curvy prejudices hadn’t changed much more than a century later.
A 1988 EEC/EU Regulation (repealed in 2008) stated that cucumbers must bend no more than 20 mm for every 10 cm of length in order to qualify for second-class classification; a mere 10mm for first class. Even crooked cucumbers that failed these specifications (and therefore only qualified for third class classification, the lowest, even if perfect in every other way) had to be packed in different boxes and transported separately from straight cucumbers.
‘May I press you to a cucumber sandwich?’
- Hugo Drax to James Bond in Moonraker.
Cucumber sandwiches — which also feature prominently in the opening of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest — are a symbol of upper-class British society and colonialism.
Still, they are officially incredibly refreshing. At least according to a 2012 study coordinated by the American Chemical Society, whose research led to the declaration that cucumber sandwiches are the single best thing to regulate our body temperature and rehydrate ourselves during hot weather. Much more effective than cold water.
In the 2003 film Goodbye Lenin, Berliner Alex resorts to going through a dumpster to find an empty jar of Spreewälder Gewürzgurken to fill up for his sick mother, from whom he’s trying to hide the fact that the Berlin Wall has come down and East Berlin has been flooded with western products.
These pickled cucumbers from the Berlin-Brandenburg region had developed a supreme reputation by the late-19th century. In 1999, Spreewälder Gewürzgurken were included in the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin initiative, which enforces standards to protect the integrity and reputation of special products connected to a region, like Champagne or Parmigiano Reggiano.
During his quest for immortality, defiance of the gods, and feel good cum heart-wrenching frenemy relationship with Enkidu, Gilgamesh apparently sees some people eating cucumbers along the way.
Perhaps it’s not the most memorable part of the story. But this supposed mention of cucumbers in the 3,800-year-old Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh — often cited as the oldest-surviving great work of literature — would easily be the earliest written mention of cucumbers we have.
During the EU elections in 2014, Bulgaria’s Shopska salad got the most likes out of a menu of recipes from all member states, posted on the European Parliament’s official Facebook page as suggestions for what to cook for election night.
Popular across the Balkans and a source of argument between Serbian, Macedonian and Bulgarian chefs over its place of origin (since parts of the Shopska region reach into all three countries), the cucumber, tomato, onion, pepper, parsley and sirene cheese salad was actually an invention of the Bulgarian state-run tourist company Balkantourist in the 1960s, as a way to promote Bulgaria’s flavorful fresh vegetables and dairy industry to foreigners.
Cucumbers contain Vitamin C, which encourages new cell growth, as well as folic acid, which stimulates antioxidants to fight off toxins that can make skin look puffy or tired. However, unless your cucumber is loaded with abnormally high levels of these two components, it’s likely that the effects of putting cucumbers over your eyes to combat dark circles, puffy skin and wrinkles is more due to the cucumber’s cool temperature and high water content.
This series is inspired by Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird. David McKenzie looks every month at the most normal food you can imagine and offers a fresh view on it. In thirteen different ways.