HISTORY OF CAULIFLOWER
Described by Arab botanists and known to the Romans, the cauliflower originally came from Cyprus, and was introduced to France from Italy in the middle of the 16th century. Today, food writers everywhere are extremely fond of quoting Mark Twain’s contention that “a cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education,” but somehow they always neglect to complete that opinion with its beginning: “Training is everything,” he wrote (in Puddn’ Head Wilson). “A peach was once a bitter almond; a cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education.” Twain could be saying that a cauliflower is just a cabbage that resembles a brain (which, indeed, it
does); the absence of many other quotable about this vegetable, however, speak clearly to the cauliflower’s humble status in the food world. “Do I dare to eat a cauliflower?” somehow doesn’t have the same poetic ring to it that T.S. Eliot’s “Do I dare to eat a peach?” does, and one can scarcely imagine children being as entranced by James and the Giant Cauliflower as they are by Ronald Dahl’s masterpiece, James and the Giant Peach.
It’s hard to imagine that this vegetable, now taken somewhat for granted, was once the rage at the court of Louis XIV and served in rich and elegant dishes there as well as in Brittany, where it was cultivated extensively. Menon, a food writer of the 18th century, suggested serving it in a rich sauce made with veal, ham and cream, or as part of a stew of sweetbreads, mushrooms and foie gras.
Such decadent and meaty dishes would probably find no place in the diets of many 21st century gourmands, save for the bravest (foodies in particular will think of Tony Bourdain and his love for strange organ meats), but once again the cauliflower is being celebrated, now by the residents of Margaretville-far away from the French court, yes, but no less sophisticated or worldly.
INTRODUCTION TO THE CATSKILLS
Cauliflower was first cultivated in Margaretville in 1891, when William F. VanBenschoten planted a handful of seeds on his farm on a mountaintop overlooking the village. The vegetable thrived in the region, and when Mr. VanBenschoten’s first crop found a ready market in New York City, his neighbors followed suit and planted some, too. While some farms in the area continued to grow cauliflower through the 1990s, the heyday of the industry in the Catskill Mountains ran from the early 1900s through the 1940s. Not only did the industry support farm families and outside laborers, but it also supported railroad workers, truck drivers, crate
manufacturers, produce agents and commission houses. So important to the local economy was the industry that the Catskill Mountain News (which was then and still is one of the most important sources of information to residents of the Catskill Mountain Region) treated bad weather, disease outbreaks, crop predictions and cauliflower prices as front page news. Increased competition from agribusiness operations, primarily in Long Island and California, led to a decline in the Catskill Region cauliflower industry by the 1950s. Long-time Margaretville residents, however, never forgot the cauliflower and its importance in the county.
A portion of this article has been reprinted courtesy of the Catskill Mountain Regional Guide magazine…