Among the most impressive figure of Charles II’s court was the insatiably curious John Evelyn. The polymathic writer and public official authored some 30 books during his lifetime, covering such diverse topics as fine arts, religion and numismatics. But one of his more enduring passions was horticulture, which he viewed as a moral pursuit. “[T]he air and genius of gardens,” he once opined, “operate upon human spirits towards virtue and sanctity.”
In 1699, Evelyn published a delightful guide to salads—or “sallets,” as he called them—that walked readers through the flavors of herbs and vegetables, how they should be prepared, when they should be grown and how they should be dressed. Now, as Matthew Taub reports for Atlas Obscura, a first edition copy of Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets is open for bidding at the Georgia-based Addison and Sarova Auctioneers, allowing one lucky buyer to claim Evelyn’s prescient ode to vegetarian eating.
Evelyn was born in 1620 to a landowning family that had made its fortunes in the gunpowder manufacturing business. After England’s Civil Wars erupted in 1642, Evelyn left the island and traveled throughout Italy and France. According to the British Library, this time abroad encouraged his “wide-ranging” interests. “By the time he returned to England in 1652 … he had made himself prodigiously learned, not only in classical literature but also in scientific and technical matters,” the entry explains.
Evelyn is perhaps best remembered today for his comprehensive diaries, which record crucial details about society, culture and politics in 17th-century England. But in his day, Evelyn was well known for his green thumb. Inspired by the landscapes he had seen in France and Italy, he lovingly tended to the garden at his wife’s country home in Deptford, enlarging it and experimenting with foreign plants. He also became the first secretary of the Royal Society, a scientific academy that still exists, and wrote a comprehensive study of trees in the United Kingdom. He wrote that book, Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in his Majesty's Dominions, in protest of deforestation by glass and iron factories. In it, Evelyn encourages his readers to plant trees in order to replenish the nation’s supply. Centuries before environmentalists touted the benefits of “green infrastructure,” Evelyn wrote a book recommending that sweet-smelling trees be planted to purify the London air, seemingly understanding on some level then how important greenery was to the environment.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Acetaria (meaning “salad,” or “foods that are prepared with oil and vinegar” in Latin) includes not only preparation instructions, but also myriad details on the salutary properties of veggies. Humble lettuce, according to Evelyn, “may safely be eaten raw in Fevers; for it allays Heat, bridles Choler, extinguishes Thirst, excites Appetite, kindly Nourishes, and above all reprelles Vapours, conciliates Sleep, mitigates Pain.” The most “nourishing” carrots are yellow, and should be “rais'd in Ground naturally rich, but not too heavy.” Beets are “of quality Cold and Moist, and naturally somewhat Laxative.”
Acetaria also includes multiple tables explaining which parts of herbs and vegetables should be eaten—only the “fine young” leaves of sorrel, for instance, and the “tender Shoots and Tops” of mint—and when they should be consumed. Onions, chervil and “persley” are best between April and June. Endives, radishes and “turneps” reach their peak between October and December.
According to Taub, Evelyn was not a vegetarian, but in Acetaria he advocates for meatless dining, decrying the “cruel Butcheries of so many harmless Creatures; some of which we put to merciless and needless Torment.” It was a remarkably forward-thinking sentiment; England’s first vegetarian society was only formed in 1847. And with his joyful paean to salads, Evelyn, in his own words, sought to “shew how possible it is by so many Instances and Examples, to live on wholsome Vegetables, both long and happily.”