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Getting to the root of vegetables

With harvest time upon us, it's worth investigating the origins of some edible growing things - mundane or exotic, each has a storied past.

1. The inside of this vine vegetable has been scientifically proven to be 20 degrees cooler than the outside air. What cucurbit (member of the gourd family) gives rise to a common metaphor meaning self-possessed and unemotional?

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2. This world traveler is a cousin to the hibiscus and hollyhock and comes from West Africa, where it was called gumbo. It was so valuable in Angola that tribes raided fields where it grew. Arab cultures considered it a rare delicacy fit for weddings, naming it uehka, 'a gift.' In the New World it traveled to Brazil and then Louisiana, where it became a strong-flavored staple in Creole cuisine. Its name?

3. What underground tuber called 'sun root' by native Americans and 'girasole' by northern Italians was given a biblical name in English - by mistake?

ANSWERS

(1) The cucumber, as in 'cool as a cucumber,' dates back more than 3,000 years to India. Charlemagne grew them in 9th-century France; Columbus took them to Haiti. Colonists grew 'cowcumbers' in Massachusetts. (2) Okra, called 'ladyfingers' in England. (3) The Jerusalem artichoke is neither an artichoke nor from Jerusalem. It's a sunflower whose name is a corruption of girasole - Italian for 'sunflower.'

SOURCES: 'The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins,' by Robert Hendrickson; 'The New York Times Book of Vegetable Gardening,' by Joan Lee Faust; The Random House Book of Vegetables.


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