In the age of Instagram, food trends come and go at a breakneck pace. By the time you’re comfortable with anything it’s already passé and the Installuminati have already found something else to obsess over. Feeling overwhelmed, I turn to one of the first food trends I was aware of – celery. As a middle schooler, I would have the running in the background as I did homework. A historical dining documentary mentioned celery as being part of a meal. It was odd and stuck with me as I worked on that night’s algebra problem set.
Unlike most contemporary vegetables, celery is surprisingly diverse. There’s the Pascal variety (regular celery), celeriac (celery root), and Chinese celery (think thinner and leafier). Celery started out as a wild plant in the Mediterranean and was originally very much like parsley. Not surprising, considering the two are are from the same botanical family. It had thin hollow stalks, a distinct green flavor, and thrived in damp environments. These two plants were so similar that early accounts commonly confused the two. Celery dispersed into Asia and the rest of Europe around the 5th century and eventually developed into the the cultivars we know today.
In Greek and Roman culture, celery was exclusively medicinal. It treated hangovers and all other sorts of aliments. This attitude towards celery persisted until celery was domesticated in the 17th century in France. Still, it was still wildly looking and seen as more of an herb than a vegetable. Early accounts of mirepoix (the flavor base of French cuisine) only directly mention onions and carrots. From The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food,
“Beauvilliers, for instance, in 1814, gives a short recipe for a Sauce à la Mirepoix which is a buttery, wine-laced stock garnished with an aromatic mixture of carrots, onions, and a bouquet garni. Carême, in the 1830s, gives a similar recipe, calling it simply Mire-poix…By the end of the 19th century, the mirepoix had taken on its modern meaning describing a mixture of ham, carrots, onions, and herbs used as an aromatic condiment…’
Celery is only implied. It was still considered more of an herb. Sure, at this point celery started looking like how we know it today, but it still wasn’t considered independently. Later on, it gained some traction as a salad vegetable (served chilled with oil and pepper), but it was still a second tier vegetable, like baby corn or rutabaga, there but not fully considered a meal.
Celery didn’t get its big break until the Dutch immigrated to the Great Lakes region of the US in the 1850s. Earlier attempts at growing celery in the Eastern US failed, but the vegetable was well-suited to the cool and damp environment of Michigan, and the Dutch knew how to do it. Kalamazoo, Michigan was dubbed the celery capital of the US. There, the Dutch developed a technique called blanching which consisted of covering the plant in dirt depriving it of sunlight making the vegetable less bitter and more palatable.
Celery was still considered exotic in America. In order to market the vegetable, the immigrants held renegade marketing campaigns on trains and in markets urging people to try this vegetable. In-N-Out pop up meets Stockholm bank robbery if you will. The marketing worked. Exoticism faded into materialism as celery started to become part of the American diet. Still in short supply, celery became a class symbol. Celery vases, made of glass or silver, displayed this new vegetable to dinner guests at parties. It was the ‘put a pineapple on your doorstep to show your wealth’ trend of the 17th century all over again.
Along with this newfound class, celery was once again touted as a cure-all in the late 1800’s This was when celery tonic became a thing along with a plethora of other celery-related products. It was one of the original super foods. The vegetable was still seen as fairly foreign, but that only played up its health attributes and appeal. It was the new but approachable plant that was going to solve all of your health problems. Celery’s health associations were probably further amplified by its proximity to Kelloggs’ health resort in Battle Creek, Michigan, just 25 miles away from Kalamazoo. As Amy Bentley, Professor of Food Studies at NYU, puts it
“The Kellogg family had this huge sanitarium and a lot people would go there to restore their health. It was very vegetarian and meat was seen as dangerous. They were wary of spices and worried about a hyper sexualized nation. So they focused on a vegetarian diet and on digestion. This eventually spawns a breakfast cereal empire.”
Celery would have fit right in with the Kelloggs’ prescribed diet of low-fat, low-protein, and high fiber foods. The viral marketing gained an unexpected boost due it’s new found health benefits.
Simultaneously, with health comes wealth. Health’s ties to class are inevitable. When a certain food starts to gain traction, the lower-upper and upper-middle classes are typically the first to adopt it. Lower classes are more concerned with getting any food at all and the high upper classes would not have been concerned with passing fads. The aspirational classes have disposable income and consumption is the easiest way to show your class aspirations. Eating celery shows a commitment to healthy living and a commitment to the current trends. Eventually, if the fad sticks around, they trickle out of the aspirational classes and into the others. This explains why celery was on the Titanic’s first class menu. Riding on the Titanic was one of the showiest and aspirational things you could have done at the time.
As time went on, celery slowly moves from elevated class/health symbol to a broader audience. Lulu Hunt Peters’s book “Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories” gained notoriety in the 1920s as one of the first mass-market diet books. It introduced the idea of counting calories, and celery fit the bill nicely. While there was still a health connotation, celery had lost its superfood status. No longer a cure-all, celery was just another healthy vegetable.
However, its lack of taste would eventually lead to its own downfall. While it was now normalized, it was too bland to be interesting. It wasn’t sweet like a carrot. It wasn’t hearty like broccoli. It was just…celery. Celery’s reputation sank in the public consciousness until it became a secondary vegetable in the 80s. Its appeal now lies in the fact that it’s a peanut butter delivery system and essentially the vegetable equivalent to a glass of water to buffalo wings.
In researching and tracking the history of celery. I started to suspect that celery was a distinctly American vegetable trend. Along with the Dutch, Lulu Hunt Peters was trained in California, and the Titanic was headed to New York. Even in France, stalk celery isn’t integral to traditional cuisine. Celery being a part of mirepoix probably about later, and could be result of the Americanization of French cuisine via Julia Child and the Francophile trends in American cuisine in the 60s.
Like any good conspiracy theorist, I went online to to find evidence. I tried ordering from the websites of French grocery stores like Monoprix and Franprix. No luck, plenty of leeks though. I went through photos of Yelp grocery stores review in France. No luck. I watched Youtube videos of open air markets in Paris in search of the stalk. After essentially Google street-viewing my way through countless videos, I only found a few sad stalks in the back of a few stands. I decided to get some boots on the ground reporting and asked my friend, Michelle Choi, in Paris to stalk some celery. Here’s a condensed interview I did with her post-stalking.
What were you expecting when I asked you to go out and look for celery?
I was expecting to see at least some in the produce section. I have never searched for celery in Paris before. I figured it would be there; it didn’t occur to me that I might not be able to find it.
What did you find?
When I arrived at the Place Maubert Market (an open air market), I did not find any celery in any of the vegetable stands. I also went to Monoprix, a much bigger store with lots of products and types of fruits/vegetables (think French Super Target)… and again no celery.
Were you surprised?
I was actually very surprised because I was at least expecting to find it at Monoprix because their difference in size. It made me wonder why it is not available in France. It didn’t necessarily change in a bad way, but it did make me question if there’s something about that prevents it from being sold in France. It definitely makes me wonder what other common vegetables (or products in general) are lacking in which countries.
Suspicions confirmed! Agricultural data from the French Government confirms this. Celeri rave (celeriac) is measured and mentioned by name whereas celeri branche is only mentioned in passing. Moreover, from The Oxford Companion to Food, “[Celery] is now common throughout the USA; and cultivated celery is highly popular as a salad vegetable; indeed, the English speaking nations are now the main consumers of celery…Celeriac (the root) became popular n the mainland of Europe, but for some reason it never made headway in English speaking countries”
Celery is a localized food trend. While its origins are European, it’s not a large part of European food culture. It’s not as woven into the vegetable tableau there. Ask an American to name a vegetable and celery is sure to pop up. Or as Bentley puts it, “It’s very widely spread, it’s probably one of a dozen vegetables most Americans are very familiar with.” It’s in our consciousness because of Dutch marketing and American businessmen. In a sense it’s an American success story, but much like other industrial booms of the 20th century, it’s glimmer faded. It’s still there, and people know about it, but we don’t actively think about it. It’s a ghost vegetable. In an age before the internet and globalization, trends are localized either geographically or culturally. In the area of Instagram and American food culture domination, can there really be any more quintessentially local food trends? Kale reached France a few years ago probably due to American cultural pressure.
Nothing about its taste, just the fact that it’s crunchy and can be dipped in something.
Celery went from foreign plant to health & wealth symbol to mainstream vegetable to second class has-been in a matter of hundred years. While we can’t know for sure the trajectory of current ingredient trends, we do know that McDonald’s tested kale in a few markets last year, and that quinoa is riding the gluten-free train to the bank. We’ve seen this same narrative with quinoa and kale. Health and class converge in a beautifully arranged grain bowl on your Instagram feed. Show me the money! In 10 years we’ll roll our eyes at the mention of these two things. They’ll be passé and horribly uncool. They’ll be the fondue of our era. As David Sax mentions in his book The Tastemakers on fondue.
“All trends have a life cycle. The old ones must inevitably decline to clear space for the new ones….This trend [fondue] started out with an elite audience of tastemakers, had spread through a media frenzy, grown into a phenomenon that defined that era’s culture, and then dropped from fashion. It had enjoyed a brief resurgence, then flamed out again.”
These things come back, but almost always in smaller waves and with a tinge of irony. There are simply too many new things to eat to get complacent. Trends are predictable. They aren’t limited to a single ingredient. Trends can be a general idea, like nose-to-tail eating, or type of cuisine, the perpetual dominance of French cuisine, for example. Many long lasting food trends can be tracked in this manner. Even the muffin/cupcake saga and La Croix can be relatively well explained with this model.
We’ll possibly see a second revival with celery like we did with cauliflower in 2015. During my interview with Bentley, I asked what would it take for make a new viral food trend
“Food trends are driven, in part, by new understandings of the elements in food. All of a sudden, certain vegetables become more important than others. Vitamins and nutrients helped spinach get popular. A more the more recent understanding of phytochemicals lead to brightly colored vegetables getting another look. Kale became a vegetable darling, but there are other leafy green vegetable with as much or more nutrients. I think Kale just had a really good marketing program. It’s also a very study leafy green, so it could transport and store very well.”
Celery is in some ways a poor stepchild to some of these other fruits and vegetables. It seems to me, a mid-twentieth century mundane vegetable. It’s been around for so long, maybe it’s due for a comeback. That’s how these things go. There are some articles in the New York Times, ‘Celery Facts’, ‘5 Ways to Cook Celery.’ People are thinking about it in different ways beyond chicken soup or as a raw vegetable. A strong flavor is a plus because it can be used in a different way than just a bland background. Celery is considered more of an aromatic. It’ll need understood in a different way more than just a bland background. It’s hearty to grow, so it can stand a lot of shipping.
We need a health advocate to cry out the value of celery. Gwenthyn Paltrow perhaps? Or something very Instagram-worthy featuring celery. No, I’m not talking about those ridiculous bloody marys. We need a restaurant that features celery forward dishes like Avocaderia. We need celery to by dyed rainbow to appeal to millennials.
Food trends proliferate faster and faster, local trends (like rolled ice cream) can go from Thai street food to a shop in suburban St. Louis in a matter of months. We’re connected now more than ever and trends keep rolling in. Celery’s saga is much like the Ford Motor Company. It’s already a butt of jokes, but that’s only a few steps away from earnestness.