Lettuce get it on: History’s (un)sexiest vegetable
From the ancient world to the modern, lettuce has a reputation as both a sexual upper and downer.
The Romaines of the Day
It was probably the ancient Egyptians who first started cultivating lettuce around 5,000 years ago, though some say the Sumerians were growing it a thousand years before that. As lettuce is native from the Mediterranean to Siberia, it’s likely that people have been foraging and eating wild versions for much longer. From the third millennium B.C., we find bas-reliefs of lettuces on the walls of Egyptian tombs. Tall and straight, these archaic ancestors resembled the cos and romaine varieties we’re familiar with today.
Unlike contemporary consumption, lettuce wasn’t grown for its leaves, being considered too bitter in taste. Instead, the seeds of the plant were harvested and pressed into an oil which was used in cooking, medicines and even mummification.
Most interesting was the leafy vegetable’s association with the god, Min, known by a variety of titles including the ‘great of love’ and my favourite, the ‘lord of the penis’. As the names suggest, Min was a fertility god, often depicted holding his large, erect genitalia.
It makes sense then, that lettuce - long and upright by nature - became the emblem of Min. But it wasn’t a simple as its phallic appearance, though this probably added to the association. The symbolism had more to do with the milky secretion which oozed from the plant when a leaf was torn off. In other words, this sap represented semen - or rather, Min’s.
(The word ‘lettuce’ actually comes from from the Latin lactuca, from lac, meaning ‘milk’.)
It was this milky sap, as Egyptologist George Hart points out, which was believed to help Min ‘perform his sexual act untiringly’. Egyptians therefore consumed lettuce as an aphrodisiac, a cure for impotence, and as an aid to fertility.
Boo, you Horus
There’s also another tale, from the Papyrus Chester-Beatty I, of a battle between the gods Horus and Set. The story tells of how Set tries to overpower Horus and rule over Egypt through seducing and sleeping with him. In order to achieve this, Set inserts himself between Horus’ thighs, mounting him as a sign of his superiority. When Horus catches Set’s semen in his hands, it signals that he’s been overpowered by another man and marks him as the loser.
Horus, nearly defeated but not quite, tasks his mother, Isis, with carrying his own semen to the garden of Set, where she places it upon his lettuces - the only vegetable he ate. On visiting the garden, Set, who by this point was probably hungry from his busy day of mounting, took a breather and ate some of the defiled lettuce. Sadly for Set, the eating of this semen-soaked lettuce was considered worse by the gods than catching it, and so Horus became the victor.
What’s the moral of this story you may ask? Men are sexually repressed, too aggressive and rely on their mothers to sort out their problems.
Limp as lettuce
It wasn’t all semen-sap and God-sex, however. In fact, by the time the ancient Greeks applied their own beliefs to lettuce, they had done a full one-eighty.
In Greek mythology, Adonis, the beautiful youth who probably looked like me, became the object of an erotic rivalry between Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Persephone, queen of the underworld. One day, while hiding in a bed of lettuce, Adonis was gored and killed by a wild boar. Another version says he was killed by the boar and then laid out on a bed of lettuce by his lover Aphrodite. And yet another speaks of him dying in a field of wild lettuce, after which Aphrodite threw herself onto a bed of lettuce to ‘lull her grief and repress her desires’. Whichever story you choose, lettuce was involved, and it had consequences.
Lettuce, considered wet and cold, became associated with the death of youth and, more closely, with impotence. Sappho, the Greek poet from Lesbos, composed songs on the subject of Adonis, referencing the Adonian lettuce gardens of Athens, where people would allow lettuce to grow just to watch it’s leaves wither and die in the sun. As author Lyn Hatherly Wilson puts it, ‘it is impotence as much as death that is mourned here’.
But these myths weren’t completely based in fiction. The waxy secretion of lettuce is similar to the latex of the opium poppy, and like the poppy, it has mild soporific properties. So when Dioscorides, the Greek physician, described lettuce as ‘in generall soporiferous and easing of Paine’, he wasn’t completely off the mark.
The Romaine Empire
The Romans also regarded lettuce as an anti- or anaphrodisiac. Pliny the Elder, the natural philosopher, prescribed lettuce for those who had eaten too many performance-boosting foods, such as rocket, as he believed lettuce cooled the blood.
In the early empire it was also eaten at the end meals as a way to calm guests and ease them into sleep. Diners would eat the leaves raw with oil, garum, vinegar, or a mixture of the three. And it’s from this practice that we get the word ‘salad’, which derives from the Latin sal (salt), referencing the way the Romans heavily seasoned their raw vegetables. It was also the Romans who spread lettuce consumption across their Empire, including its introduction to Britain.
The belief in lettuce as impotence-inducing lasted throughout medieval Europe. John of Gaddesden, the author of a 14th century medical book, mentions how sterility in men can be caused by consuming ‘sterilizing’ foods such as lettuce and, interestingly, glow worms. Lettuce was also considered as an antidote after consuming overly-powerful aphrodisiacs. Albertus Magnus, the German bishop, for example, described the starfish as such a violent aphrodisiac it could cause you to ejaculate blood. This was easily cured, however, with a simple course of lettuce.
A 16th century Venetian book advises the reader to eat ‘a lettuce salad’ to ‘suprress the senses and lust’, while Andrew Boorde, an English traveller from the same period, wrote that lettuce ‘doth extynct veneryous actes’. A 17th century French physician, Nicolas Venette, informed readers that lettuce ‘prevents the Generation of seed in most Men… especially if they eat it at Nights’. (Great tip.) In enlightenment Britain and France, the previously held belief that impotency could be caused by witchcraft was displaced by the notion that men’s ‘weakness could be caused by eating such cooling herbs as lettuce’.
Lettuce leaf it there
As can be seen, the literature is brimming with references to lettuce and its devastating effects on men’s genitalia. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even Beatrix Potter knew the dangers when she wrote The Tales of the Flopsy Bunnies (1909), ‘It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific’. I have never felt sleepy after eating lettuces; but then I am not a rabbit. They certainly had a soporific effect on the Flopsy Bunnies!’ Interpret ‘Flopsy Bunnies’ as you will...
It seems lettuce has been on quite a rollercoaster ride these past 5,000 years. From ancient sex symbol to medieval sexual sedative, who knew those unassuming salad leaves had such a sordid past?
What to take away from this brief history of world’s (un)sexiest vegetable? Mothers have been solving their sons’ problems since ancient Egypt, I look like Adonis, and you should never eat a starfish without a lettuce salad on the side.
If you’ve found you, or your man, have eaten too much lettuce and need a little pick me up, try exploring some of edible recommendations below:
Ox penis and soft-boiled egg
Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher, told his readers to ‘[t]ake the penis of an ox, dry it and grind it. Sprinkle some of this on a soft-boiled egg, and drink in sips’.
A medieval Indian recipe required one to, ‘Boil the penis of an ass together with onions and a large quantity of corn. With this dish feed fowl, which you then eat’.
Roasted wolf’s penis
Albertus Magnus didn’t just advise chowing down on starfish, he also explained that, ‘If a wolf’s penis is roasted in an oven, cut into small pieces and a small portion of this is chewed, the consumer will experience an immediate yen for sexual intercourse.’
If you can’t get your hands on a wolf’s penis, Magnus also recommends, ‘Sparrow meat being hot and dry enkindles sexual desire and also induces constipation.’
Urine soaked rotting wood
In the 1400s, Nicholas Flamel, the famed Parisian scholar, said that impotence could be cured by soaking rotting wood in a 16 year old virgin’s urine for three days, after which you eat it.