Created | Updated May 29, 2013
When mankind emerged from the caves and started practising agriculture, someone decided they wanted lettuce. Deliberately growing lettuce has been known for at least 6,000 years. Perhaps it even grew in the garden of Eden. Lettuce is not a perennial, but rather is grown each year from seed. It has a thick cell wall, and milky juice which gives it the scientific name Lactuca sativa. Whether it is iceberg, Romaine, or a simple garden variety, people would find it hard to make a salad without using lettuce for the base.
Lettuce Through the Ages
One early version of lettuce Lactuca Serriolas has leaves similar to the dandelion. The Egyptian god of reproduction is associated with this variety of lettuce. Also, the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, is reputed to have put the slain Adonis in a lettuce bed, leading to the vegetable's association with food for the dead. Many civilizations around the world have used it for ritual or medicinal purposes. During the Dark Ages, many believed you would find evil spirits lurking in a bed of lettuce.
The soporific effect of lettuce was featured in the 1909 story The Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter.
The main type of lettuce one thinks of is head lettuce, but this is not the only type. The most common types are:
Iceberg: a large, crisp head lettuce with green leaves on the outside and whiter leaves on the inside. It is known for a crisp texture and a watery, mild taste.
Romaine or Cos Lettuce: a sporting deep green, long-leaved lettuce with a crisp texture and deep taste. It is often sold with other salad greens.
Little gem Lettuce: A smaller, more compact variety.
Butterhead lettuce, including bib and Boston lettuce: this features a more loosely arranged head with large tender leaves.
Leaf: the first lettuce to ripen, it has broad, individual leaves. Some varieties come in different colors. Also known as 'cut and come again' lettuce, it offers a delicate taste and a slightly crisp texture. The best-known varieties include green leaf and red leaf.
One Researcher remembers how his dad loved to plant leaf lettuce.
It was one of the first vegetables to mature, and with a few radishes cut up and some Italian dressing made a nice spring salad.
The time from sowing to eating is about six to ten weeks for leaf lettuce and about two months for head lettuce. If you have wildlife that likes to eat it before you do, then you should invest in a fence or netting to protect the immature plants.
Leaf lettuces can be harvested one leaf at a time, or the entire plant can be cut with scissors just above the soil, allowing the plant to sprout new leaf growth. It is best to harvest only during the early morning hours, and refrigerate until ready for use. Once the seed stalks start forming in early summer, pull it out and replant, as the leaves will no longer be young or sweet. Head lettuce on the other hand needs more time, and once the heads are the right size, pull the whole plant, discard the roots, then refrigerate.
All types of lettuce should be stored in a crisper or plastic container. Keep it away from ethylene-producing fruits such as apples, bananas and pears, since they will cause the lettuce leaves to brown. Iceberg or Romaine lettuce should stay crisp for a week. Butterhead or leaf lettuce wilts more quickly, and should be used within a couple of days.
Lettuce contains sizable amounts of fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin K, as well as folic acid, manganese, and lesser amounts of many other nutrients. Many diets recommend that we eat more fibre; in the colon, fibre regulates digestion and stimulates the production of bile, which in turn breaks down cholesterol.
One widespread use of lettuce – along with other vegetables – is to make a sandwich look more healthy. It's the texture with the crunch that makes a burger deluxe and in the process it reduces the calories per gram.
Sometimes lettuce is mixed in with other greens like cilantro, lamb's lettuce, or radiccio. Often it is sold unmixed, so that the user can decide what to add to it. Sometimes it will be served as a Caesar Salad or simply as a lettuce wedge salad.
Some ethnic foods like Mexican tacos use shredded lettuce.
Another use is to garnish a plate of food. This will improve the presentation, especially if the lettuce is crisp and fresh.
If the lettuce has been in the refrigerator a few days and you want to try something different, why not cook the lettuce and use it as a side dish? Another possibility is to make lettuce soup.