The Cucumber and the Cook: The Humor Behind it All

The vegetable [cucumbers}, though apt to disagree with persons of delicate habit, when sauced in the common English mode, with salt, pepper, and vinegar only,
may often be eaten by them with impunity when dressed with plenty of oil.

Eliza Acton


The long, fat cucumber sits at the bottom of the paper sack, like a well-fed snake in the grass, curled up under the parsley and the dill, looking like no grocery store specimen I’ve ever seen. A friend, desperate to rid herself of too much garden glory, left it on my porch, with a note:  “Enjoy!” I thought about the size thing for a minute, realizing how quickly a cucumber, or a squash for that matter, can overnight grow into a monster. Too big, too seedy, too watery, too wet. Coarse. Most recipes, at least in today’s cookbooks, call for small, delicate cucumbers, thin of skin and seedless.

Burpless, therefore. Bred to fit into an ideal image, of aristocracy, daintiness, and ancient theories of hot and cold, today’s archetypal cucumber rarely is allowed to take on gargantuan proportions.

And I think that ideal led to the creation of a sandwich. Or at least with its popularization.

The cucumber sandwich, pride of teatime as far-flung as the upper-class mansions of the American South and the verandas of British India.

The Victorians perfected the cucumber sandwich, and served these symbols of the upper-class during afternoon tea, having as they did access to hothouses where cucumbers grew during all seasons, thanks to a plentiful supply of coal at the time. Sir Edward Montague Compton Mackenzie skewered these dainties in his novel Vestal Fire, saying “You are offered a piece of bread and butter that feels like a damp handkerchief and sometimes, when cucumber is added to it, like a wet one.”

What’s fascinating about all this is that the qualities of cold and moist appear to be rather ancient in origin. Cucumber sandwiches reflect medieval Arabic dietary theory of moistness and coolness. Al-Warrāq’s tenth-century Baghdadi cookbook defines the prevailing theory surrounding two different types of cucumbers. The khiyār (small and smooth cucumber) “is cold and moist. It is somewhat astringent and is good for excessive heat and high fevers.” Cousin to the khiyār, the “qiththā (long and ridged cucumber) is more or less similar to khiyār but somewhat denser when digested.”

Early Indian religious writings, such as the Rigvēda (ca. 1500 – 1000 BCE), mentioned cucumbers: “fruits like … cucumber were preserved in vinegar or sour rice gruel (kānjika).” This early referral to pickling tantalizes me, because cooks have married the cucumber with vinegar for centuries. And most early written accounts allude to changes that occur in the coldness/wetness of cucumbers in the presence of acid. Apicius includes three treatments of cucumbers, usually in terms of cooking them in a broth, with the addition of the asaefetida-like and now sadly extinct silphium. However, one of three recipes appears to possibly be a salad of raw cucumbers, with vinegar.

Al-Warrāq states quite emphatically that the thick humors of cucumbers “become less dense due to the vinegar used in making” pickles. Galen (129 AD – 200 AD?) popularized the idea that the juices of the cucumber thickened and resulted in fevers and bodily rot.

These theories and beliefs, of course, influenced medieval European medical theory and, hence, cooking. Class differences in eating patterns arose. With hard physical labor, workers shrugged off many debilitating effects of mismatched foods, while the aristocracy required lighter fare, more suited to their so-called delicate constitutions. The Tractatus de modo preparandi et condiendi omnia cibaria lists a number of foods – most of them white in color, including a sauce made from pears or apples or cucumbers – deemed suitable for feeding dainty aristocrats.

John Thacker fails to mention cucumber sandwiches in his 1758 tome, The Art of Cookery, and neither does Mrs. Beeton in the 1861 edition of Book of Household Management, although she wastes some ink about the indigestibilty of the cucumber and its inappropriateness for the “regimen of the delicate.”

Just like a cucumber sandwich, I suspect.

 Cucumber Sandwiches

White bread, crusts removed
Softened salted butter
Thinly sliced hot-house cucumbers

Butter one slice of bread and lay on cucumber slices to cover. Top with another slice of bread. Repeat with all bread and cucumbers. Cover sandwiches with slightly damp cloth until ready to serve. Cut quickly into rectangles or squares. Arrange attractively on a large plate and serve with tea.

Cucumber 1
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

© 2014 C. Bertelsen

4 thoughts on “The Cucumber and the Cook: The Humor Behind it All

  1. Hi Merril, thank you; as for cucumbers, I started out thinking about them the other day as they’ve begun showing up in our garden, on our porch, and in conversations, like “I acted cool as a cucumber.”

  2. “A cucumber should be well sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar and then thrown out, as good for nothing,” Samuel Johnson, misquoted by Waverley Root

Comments are closed.