March is National Celery Month and so we take time to highlight this vegetable that seems so utilitarian but was once a symbol of wealth for the likes of the Astors and Vanderbilts. It was prized throughout history, from the ancient world through the Renaissance and into the Industrial Revolution. You may very well consider it extremely boring. But our goal today is to see this crunchy and refreshing stalk in a completely different light and inspire you to eat it with abandon.
OK we admit that celery pitted against a plump red raspberry, a perfectly ripe peach or a slice of tangy pineapple probably wouldn’t stand a chance on the buffet table. But there was a time when it was the star of the menu because of its trendy newness. Yes, it once was trendy and new! And expensive.
During America’s Gilded Age and Britain’s Victorian Era when industrialists flaunted their new wealth, celery adorned dinner tables like flower arrangements. They were placed on the tables at the fanciest balls and parties in beautiful glass vases filled with water. The leaves were left on the stalks and they spread out over the settings like miniature trees. No doubt the fragrance from the plants provided a refreshing and appetizing ambience like no floral bouquet could.
Celery is a difficult plant to grow requiring just the right combination of water and soil, which is so thick and wet that farmers referred to as “muck.” Because of this it was labor intensive and made it a very costly dish for the average person. And during those days celery was relatively new to America so not many people knew what to do with it. It had been popular in Europe since the 1500’s so the first colonists had tried to bring it to the New World. But they did not have much luck in preventing it from rotting or dying through the growing season. Even Thomas Jefferson, the founding father with an excellent green thumb, struggled with it and eventually gave up. Beans, peas and onions were just so much easier.
But in the mid 1800’s a Scottish immigrant named George Taylor brought some seeds from his homeland to Kalamazoo, Michigan where the land, soil and water had been perfectly prepared for the vegetable by ancient glaciers. Some dispute that Taylor was the first to bring the seeds, especially the Dutch immigrants who came to the area about the same time and who expanded the farming with great vigor. They claimed to have been the source and it is highly probable since celery was being grown extensively in Holland for several centuries before. Regardless of who brought it there first, within a decade Kalamazoo was dubbed “Celery City” and would become one of the state’s biggest industries. And they wouldn’t have had to bring many seeds to get the crop started in a big way. Just one ounce of celery seeds will produce a full acre.
Urbanization and the automotive industry however would eventually come close to eradicating the celery farms in Michigan and now California grows the vast majority of celery in the U.S. But if you are looking to visit a celery museum any time soon, the only one you will find is in Michigan. In the little town of Portage, just next to Kalamazoo is the Celery Flats Interpretive Center where one can learn about the importance of celery farming in the region.
Celery may have lost its reputation as a luxury food, but it still is a star alongside some of the most elegant meals. Celery became a staple for one of the most famous cocktails, the Bloody Mary. Using a celery stick to garnish the drink originated in the 1960s at Chicago’s Ambassador East Hotel. When a bar patron was served his without a swizzle stick, he grabbed a stalk of celery from the relish tray and began stirring it and now it’s part of the official recipe.
Celery is also an essential ingredient in one of the most famous salads in haute cuisine. The Waldorf Salad which may be most famous now for its walnuts, didn’t have them in the original version. In the original version celery was the co-star with apples as it only contained apples, celery and mayonnaise.
The finest dishes of arguably the world’s best destination for cuisine, New Orleans, would be flavorless without the base used to make them. ètoufèe, gumbo and jambalaya all start with what the chefs of that great city call “The Holy Trinity” of Cajun food—celery, onions and peppers. And the French, who can rightfully claim the title of culinary center of the world, also have a “Holy Trinity” for their mirepoix, the essential base for their soups and stews. That Trinity is carrots, onions and, of course, celery.
But celery “never got above its raising,” as they would say down South. It is equally at home on the dishes for the common man. Who would dare eat those devilishly hot Buffalo wings without some celery stalks on the side to help cool down the heat? Or how about that most satisfying of snacks—a celery stalk with peanut butter lining the inside of its rib? And celery is a must have for any base and stock of the best homemade soups.
Celery is one of the oldest known vegetables. It is mentioned in the writings of Homer and Pliny among other writers and philosophers of the ancient world. Hippocrates, perhaps the most famous physician in history, prescribed celery as a nerve soother. Medicinally celery has been used for many different ailments over the course of history. In fact its name comes from the Latin root celer which means “quick acting” or fast as in the word accelerate due to its perceived speed in relieving certain health problems. In the ancient world it was used to treat lumbago, constipation, impotence and hangovers. Down through the ages it has been used for digestive problems, insomnia, animal bites, pain relief and anxiety. And at the same time that celery was adorning the tables of the rich in the 1800’s, celery was being marketed as a healing tonic in sodas, soups and even gum. In the 1890’s the Sears Catalog sold an elixir made from celery and advertised it as an antidote to anxiety calling it a “great nerve builder.”
The Romans believed it to be an aphrodisiac and they may have been onto something. Celery contains androsterone which is a pheromone found in sweat and urine to which animals definitely react sexually. Whether humans do so is a great debate without any firm evidence. But the legendary lover Casanova thought celery did have something that sparked romantic fire and was said to have eaten much of the vegetable during his escapades. And the wife of Louis XV, Madame du Pompadour, fed him celery soup in hopes that he would be motivated to make her a mother to his heirs.
However the Greeks had a sadder view of celery and associated it with death. It was a custom to place garlands of celery leaves on the bodies of the dead for their funerals. Leading to the common Greek expression, “He now has need of nothing but celery,” indicating that a person’s death was imminent. The Egyptians also thought that taking celery into the next life was important. Its most famous pharaoh, King Tut, was adorned with a shroud spread with celery leaves.
With its high content of fiber and vitamins celery is one of the last things that should be associated with death. It is loaded with antioxidants and enzymes that have been shown to fight off many diseases and protect vital body functions. The five grams of fiber in a typical serving help facilitate digestion and reduce bloating. It contains a unique compound called 3-n-butylphthalide (BuPh) which has been shown to help reduce the levels of bad cholesterol. Celery has been shown in studies to reduce inflammation, help prevent ulcers and to boost the health of the liver. And everyone recognizes it as one the best foods to fill up on if you are trying to lose weight.
There is no doubt that eating a lot of celery can help one trim down. But there is one myth about it spread many years ago that we must dispel. The idea that celery has “negative calories” meaning that it takes more calories to eat and digest it than it contains has long been disproven. But at only 16 calories per serving you certainly don’t have to worry about getting fat eating as much of it as you want. And for that reason, it is fitting that the vegetable gets a whole month rather than just a day like so many other fruits and veggies. There is no danger in celebrating celery as many days of the year as you wish. In fact your health and happiness will benefit immensely by eating as much of it as you desire.