VI: Corn Salad

How a humble weed ignited a foodie revolution.

VI: Corn Salad
Cornsalad. Photo by Dinkum via Wikimedia Commons.

Good morning. Today is sextidi, the 6th of Frimaire, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate la mâche, a leafy little munching plant for salads.

Corn salad (also sometimes spelled as the portmanteau 'cornsalad') has nothing to do with maize. The name predates the "discovery" of North American corn, and instead refers to the old sense of "corn" as any cereal crop. Corn salad would spread prolifically over fallow or harvested cereal fields in the winter, when it thrives. The French name is also sometimes used in English – mâche – and means "to chew." Germans sometimes mislabel it as rapunzel, but we all know that's a different plant. In grocery stores and recipes, you may see it referred to as "lamb's lettuce" because of its little ear- or tongue-shaped leaves.

It's hard to dwell in the mindset of history. There are so many details of our everyday experience that we have to learn to tune out and reimagine when we cast our minds hundreds of years into the past. Just when you think you've learned everything – that the palace of Versailles smelled like excrement that was desperately perfumed with the most potent flowers known to man, creating a sweet shitty smell that probably has no modern analogue, for example – you realize you're forgetting something else crucial.

Why were French gardens so important? Why were their gardeners so revered and copied in European neighbors? Did it all come about simply because Louis XIV was a fancy-pants with a love of finery and frippery? Was it really just an exercise in conquering nature with geometry?

Those were factors, and major ones, to be sure. And they reflect the experience we still have today, when we gaze in awe at a perfectly manicured palace garden. But the origin has a more universal desire mixed in: the desire to eat something that tastes good in the winter.

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