Fruits and Nuts
The almond (Prunus communis) is a close relative of the peach. Originating in central Asia, the almond became indigenous to the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East. Wild almonds (P. amygdalus) continue to thrive in northern Africa and on the dry steppes of the Caucasus, Turkey, and Afghanistan. Almond trees grow to about 20 feet high in the wild and are larger when cultivated, primarily in California, South Africa, Australia, Spain, Italy, and Provence.
Although almonds are now the leading nut crop world-wide, they would not have been a likely candidate for cultivation. The nut seeds of wild almonds are extremely bitter; when placed in water, the seeds produce prussic acid, which is a fast-acting, deadly poison. A mouthful of raw wild almonds will kill a person. Fortunately, our early ancestors discovered that heating almond seeds makes them edible. Today, both bitter and sweet almonds are available in some countries, though it is advisable to stay away from the bitter ones, which if consumed in quantity can make one ill.
Almonds were domesticated before 2800 b.c.e. and have been identified at archaeological sites in the Dead Sea Basin, in Greece, and in Egypt. Before that, hunter-gatherer groups collected wild almonds for cooking and consumption. The Bible mentions almonds (Genesis 43:11; Exodus 25:33 and 37:19-20; Numbers 17:8; Ecclesiastes 12:5; Jeremiah 1:11), and peoples of the Bible would definitely have used almonds in their cooking.
Cooks in India and the Levant (that part of southwest Asia between the Mediterranean Sea, Mesopotamia, the Arabian Desert, and the Taurus mountains) still use almonds to flavor meat dishes. In Europe and the Americas, bakers use almonds or almond products (flakes, pastes, butter, extract) to flavor desserts, and both sugared and salted almonds are eaten as snack food. Almonds are extremely high in vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, iron, riboflavin, phosphorus, and dietary fiber. In some places, almond oil is a cosmetic and is so fine that it can be used to lubricate watches.
The apple (Malus silvestris spp. domestica) is, like the apricot—with which it has often been confused in Bible translations—a member of the Rose family. Native to the land between the Black and Caspian Seas south of the Caucasus Mountains according to many botanists (though others claim the apple is native to the Baltic region), the apple descended from the crab- (or wild) apple (M. silvestris). Spread by birds and animals, the crabapple mutated as it moved across Europe and Asia. Crabapples were part of the prehistoric human diet: archaeologists have discovered crabapple remains in Stone Age (before about 6000 b.c.e.) sites across Europe, from the Adriatic to the North Sea coasts. The first record of apple cultivation comes from a Babylonian tomb in the ancient city of Ur, dating from circa 2000 b.c.e. Apple remains have also been discovered at the Kadesh-Barne'a oasis, located between the Sinai and Negev deserts, dating from about 1000 b.c.e. And in the 13th century b.c.e. Ramses II planted apple trees in the Nile delta. By the 7th century b.c.e. the ancient Greeks were growing and using apples in their marriage ceremonies, and by the 6th century b.c.e. the ancient peoples of western Asia and the northern Mediterranean were growing apples, using grafting techniques learned from the peoples of Asia. One of the labors of Hercules was to capture the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, and the apple figures prominently in Greek mythology and lore, including the cause of the Trojan War (though those golden apples may actually have been lemons). Nevertheless, the apple was most likely not a common food of the ancient Hebrews; the Israelites may have known of apples from their time in Egypt, but they would not have been able to take apple trees with them on their wanderings through the desert, and they would certainly not have found wild apple trees there. It is possible that apples may have been growing in the Promised Land, but the climate there is not propitious for apple cultivation either.
The ancient Romans became sophisticated cultivators of apples: they were growing at least seven different types by the 2nd century b.c.e. and thirty-six varieties by the 1st century c.e. The Romans worshipped a goddess of fruit, Pomona, who, along with Venus, was often shown holding apples. Apple remains have been discovered from Roman Britain. Indeed, apple cultivation has a long history in England; many famous apple varieties (Old English Pearmains, Costards, Cox's Orange Pippins, Cox's Pomonas, and Bramley's Seedlings, among many others) developed there, and the apple even inspired Isaac Newton to propose his theory of gravity. The French were also great apple growers and originated the Pippin varieties. Domestic apple varieties probably did not make their way to China until the Middle Ages.
English colonists brought apples (seeds and cuttings) to the Americas in the early 17th century, finding there a perfect environment for apple cultivation, which needs cold winters and hot summers (the apple requires at least two months of winter to regain its strength after harvest). By the mid-18th century, New England was exporting apples. In the early 19th century the legendary Johnny Appleseed (born John Chapman) took a load of apple seedlings and a bible and set off down the Ohio River, preaching and planting wherever he roamed, from western Pennsylvania to Indiana. Because the apples grown from seed did not often produce fruit the equal of that grown on grafted trees, they were sometimes made into cider or fed to livestock. Some of the finest eating apples were accidental hybrids or chance trees grown from seed: the Northern Spy, the Spitzbergen, the Jonathan, and the Rhode Island Greening all were discovered by chance and further cultivated by grafting. Henderson Llewelling (or Luelling), a farmer from Iowa, took several wagonloads of apple trees and other plants to Oregon in 1845; though his family of pioneers was afflicted with cholera, attacked by Native Americans, and abandoned by the rest of their wagon train, he persevered, made it to the Willamette Valley, planted his trees, and became wealthy by selling the fruit on the West Coast. Apple orchards are now most prevalent and productive in Washington, Michigan, and New York, with many orchards found throughout New England and down the Atlantic Coast as far south as Virginia.
The Victorian English were great lovers of apples, developing famous varieties such as Bramleys, Russets, Swaars, Gravensteins, Golden Reinettes, and Red Astrakhans. During the same years, American farmers developed the Delicious, the Golden Delicious, and Grimes Golden. Golden Delicious is now famous around the world, though many say that its taste is much inferior to that of the older and more delicate cultivars.
Today, about 7,500 varieties of apples are grown world-wide, but there are eight apples that make up 80 percent of domestic U.S. production. These are:
- Red Delicious, a bright red apple that accounts for almost half the U.S. domestic crop. It is sweet, crisp, and juicy and is best eaten raw.
- Golden Delicious, a golden-yellow or yellow-green all-purpose apple that can be eaten fresh or baked, used in pies, or made into applesauce. When cut up, its flesh does not turn dark as quickly as that of other apples. It is unrelated to the Red Delicious.
- Granny Smith, a green, all-purpose apple with a tart flavor and crisp flesh.
- Jonathan, a deep-red apple used for eating, baking pies, and making applesauce.
- McIntosh, a green-and-red all-purpose apple that is slightly tart and very juicy. It is the parent apple of such varieties as Cortland and Empire.
- Rome Beauty, a red or red-striped apple that is best when cooked or used in baking.
- Stayman, a purplish-red all-purpose apple with slightly tart and juicy flesh.
- York, also known as York Imperial, a pinkish-red baking apple with yellow and somewhat juicy flesh.
Of course, many apples are delicious eaten fresh from the tree, but there are many ways of preparing apples: baking them whole or stuffed, using them in pies and cakes, cooking them into applesauce, adding them raw to salads, squeezing them into cider, fermenting them into hard cider, even turning them into so-called apple butter, which is really a jamlike product. One of the appealing features of the apple is its long shelf life: when kept in cold storage, apples go into a sort of suspended animation that prevents them from further ripening and protects them from spoilage.
In general, the entirety of the apple fruit is edible, but one should avoid eating too many apple seeds, as they contain tiny amounts of the poison cyanide. Apples are generally high in vitamin C, moderate in dietary fiber, beta-carotene, potassium, and boron, low in calories and fat, and have no cholesterol.
The apricot (Prunus armeniaca) is a member of the Rose family, along with the almond, cherry, peach, apple, and plum. Native to what is now eastern Tibet and northern China, it has small, unpalatable fruit in the wild. It is not known when the Chinese first began cultivating apricots—perhaps as early as 2000 b.c.e.—but the fruit made its way rather quickly to ancient Mesopotamia and was reported in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. By the 1st century b.c.e. apricots had spread west to the Levant (that part of southwest Asia between the Mediterranean Sea, Mesopotamia, the Arabian Desert, and the Taurus mountains) and were well known in ancient Rome, though not in ancient Greece. It is generally accepted that the peoples of the Bible were familiar with and fond of apricots. Many biblical scholars believe that the fruit referred to in the Garden of Eden story was really an apricot, not an apple, as the early English translations stated. With the fall of the Roman Empire, apricots seem to have disappeared from Europe, to appear again with the Moorish colonization of Spain, and then again with the return of the Crusaders from the Holy Land.
The orange-yellow flesh of apricots is drier than that of peaches and peels away easily from the stone, or pit. Apricots are rich in vitamins A and C, iron, and potassium. They are low in fat and calories and have no cholesterol. Apricots are most nutritious when eaten fresh, but they can be broiled, grilled, poached, and dried, and they can also be squeezed for nectar. Untreated apricot pits contain amygdalin, a chemical that breaks down into, among other components, hydrogen cyanide, which can be poisonous. Another extract of the pits, known as Laetrile, is thought to help eradicate cancer, though no tests have definitively proved this theory.
Apricot trees are relatively delicate; they require a temperate climate with cool winters, when they go dormant, but early, warm springs, as they are extremely susceptible to frost. The United States (California) is the world's leading producer of apricots, but they are also grown widely in Europe, particularly in Hungary, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Some of the more popular varieties of apricots include the Blenheim, Tilton, Patterson, and Castlebrite.
The banana (Musa cultivars of the Banana family) may have been one of the first fruits cultivated by humankind. Originating in the wet tropics of southeastern Asia, perhaps in the Malaysian peninsula, the banana is really a treelike perennial herb—the world's largest herb, in fact. Botanists have identified about forty species of bananas growing wild in the region, and it is likely that more have yet to be discovered. Most of these have seedy, generally inedible fruit, technically a false berry, which develops from the unfertilized female flowers of the plant. Prehistoric mutations produced a sterile plant that yielded seedless, edible fruit, and early peoples liked the fruit and began to cultivate them, taking the plants along when they migrated northwest toward India. These mutations hybridized with a hardier species of wild banana to produce the ancestors of the bananas so widely enjoyed today.
Recent archaeological evidence from Papua New Guinea indicates that banana cultivation was common by 5000 b.c.e., perhaps even by 8000 b.c.e. The first written mention of bananas dates from the 6th century b.c.e., in the Indian Buddhist literature. Bananas became known to the Mediterranean world only when Alexander the Great entered India about 330 b.c.e., but neither he nor his followers brought banana plants back with them. Not until Islam claimed Palestine and the eastern Mediterranean in the 7th and 8th centuries c.e. did the banana become at all known in Europe. In fact, the banana may be the Tree of Paradise mentioned in the Koran, and bananas have become an important ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine. But climate prevented bananas from becoming established north of the Sahara Desert; instead, they spread southward into the African heartland. From there they made their way to the Canary Islands, and Spanish settlers took them to the Caribbean and then to Central and South America in the 16th century. Simultaneous with their westward spread, bananas may have been taken eastward from Malaysia through Polynesia and the Pacific.
But the perishable banana did not become an important trade product until the 19th century, when shipbuilders learned how to construct vessels that could cross the oceans quickly enough so that the bananas would not spoil before reaching their destination. These schooners, often called banana boats, raced one another from Brazil to New York and from the Caribbean to Liverpool to capture the market. Refrigerated steamships made the trade even more competitive and so lucrative that the United Fruit Company of Boston could use the profits generated from selling bananas to build railways and finance governments in Central and South America. Virtually servants of the company, the governments of Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras became known as “banana republics.” Today, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, and the Philippines are the world's major banana producers.
Bananas are extremely high in carbohydrates and so are an excellent source of energy. They are also rich in potassium and are recommended to people suffering from high blood pressure. Bananas may help ease both constipation and diarrhea.
Bananas occur in a large variety of sizes and colors, from small, inch-length to larger, foot-length fruits, and from green to yellow. The most commonly available varieties are the sweet M. acuminata and M. x paradisiaca, both of which are available fresh year-round. Most of the bananas exported outside of the tropics are of the Cavendish cultivar.
Bananas and plantains, which are a harder and starchier variety, are the staple food of many tropical and subtropical regions. Of course, bananas are eaten fresh, peeled and removed from the skin, either alone or in fruit salads, with ice cream, or even with peanut butter. Unripe bananas are often fried. Ripe bananas are sometimes mashed to produce a starchy paste that can also be fried or mixed with bread or cake batter. Bananas make a fine jam. They can be dried, either sliced or whole, and eaten as a snack. The flowers and the tender core of the trunk are also served either raw with dips or cooked in curries and soups. The long, large leaves can serve as building, clothing, and cooking materials.
The cantaloupe (Cucumis melo cantalupensis) is actually a type of muskmelon (C. melo). The cantaloupe got its name from Cantalupo, Italy, where in the 18th century c.e. the pope's gardener imported the melon's seeds from Armenia and began to grow them for the papal table. The French developed a variety of cantaloupe called Charentais, which has pale green skin. The popular Netted Gem cantaloupe with a beige rind and sweet orange flesh is actually a W. Atlee Burpee Company hybrid, introduced in the late 19th century.
Cantaloupe is delicious when eaten fresh from the rind, either chilled or at room temperature. It makes a fine addition to fruit salads. Wrapped in pro-sciutto, it adds color and flavor to antipasti. Seeded cantaloupe halves make a colorful and tasty serving bowl for cereals, cheeses, and even soups. Cantaloupe juice can also be distilled into liqueurs.
Of the melons, cantaloupe is highest in vitamin C and potassium. It is also extremely high in vitamin A and has no cholesterol.
Carob is the flesh of the pods of the carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua), an evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean and Middle East. Growing to a height of more than 30 feet, the trees produce small red flowers and seed pods that are several inches in length. The flesh of the pods has a taste similar to that of cocoa, but carob has no caffeine and can be substituted for cocoa in a wide variety of ways. For millennia, carob was one of the few sweeteners known to humankind and so was an important ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking. Members of the Legume family, carob trees are quite resistant to drought and thrive in semiarid climates, such as the desert areas where John the Baptist conducted his ministry, and it is believed that the “locusts” often referred to as part of his diet (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6) were really carob pods (the translators of the Bible knew them as locust beans). Carob pods are also called St. John's bread.
The cherry is related to the apricot, peach, plum, and, surprisingly, almond. Like them, the cherry belongs to the Prunus genus of the Rose family, and the cherry's ancestors also originated in the mountain valleys and upland forests of central Asia.
The cherry comes in two main varieties: sweet and sour. The sweet cherry, represented primarily by the Gean (Prunus avium), is a large tree that can reach 80 feet or more in height. Its flowers are white and its fruit is reddish-black. Its scientific name means “bird's cherry,” an indication that birds find the fruit particularly tasty. It is now native to Europe, northern Africa, Turkey, and the greater Caucasus region, having migrated millennia ago from its land of origin. The sweet cherry was certainly part of the diet of early human hunter-gatherers: cherry stones from Gean fruits have been discovered in Neolithic and Bronze Age sites (5000-1500 b.c.e.) from Turkey to Portugal to Central Europe. By about 500 b.c.e. the cherry had been put into cultivation in Greece and Asia Minor. It is a rather difficult plant to cultivate, requiring cross-pollination from other trees for fruit to set. Also, it propagates best by grafting, a technique unknown in Europe until the time of ancient Greece, having made its way west from China, where it was invented. Plato's pupil Theophrastus wrote about the cultivation of cherries in History of Plants, and there is a Roman fresco that depicts a bird eating cherries. It is possible that cherries were known to the peoples of the Bible. The best-known sweet varieties today are the Bing, Lambert, Van, Chapman, Larian, and Black Republican, not to mention the lighter-skinned Rainier and Royal Ann.
The sour cherry, primarily represented by the Morello (P. cerasus), is likely a cross between the sweet cherry and the ground cherry (P. fruticosa), a shrub native to central and eastern Europe whose fruit is small and bitter. The Morello is a short tree, reaching about 25 feet in height, and it is capable of self-pollination. Because of the sour taste, its fruit is used mostly for jams and liqueurs. Today, the Montmorency variety is the best-known sour cherry.
Cherry cultivation in Europe declined with the fall of the Roman Empire, coming back into vogue during the 16th century c.e. European colonists brought cherries with them to the Americas: the sour varieties liked the climate of the Atlantic coast, while the sweet varieties found the Midwestern climate more suitable.
But North America already had indigenous cherries, which millennia ago had made their way east from central Asia through China (which now boasts the beautiful Chinese cherry P. tomentosa) and Siberia, across the Bering Land Bridge, and down the Pacific coast before crossing the continent. The American cherry populations became intermixed as European colonists began cultivating the American wild sand cherries (P. besseyi and P. pumila), and the Gean and Morello cherries escaped into the American wild. American natives also include the chokecherry (P. virginiana), the pin cherry (P. pennsylvanica), the sweet black cherry (P. serotina), and the southwestern chokecherry (P. melanocarpa), among others. Today, the United States is one of the leading producers of cherries.
Sweet cherries are high in calories, vitamin C, and potassium. Prized for their taste, they can be added to fruit salads, yogurts, pies, cakes and muffins, cookies, pancakes and waffles, and meat and poultry dishes; they can even be used to make a delicious chilled cherry soup. Sour cherries, which are also high in vitamin A, are used most often for pie fillings and for jams, though sugar is usually added to temper the sour taste.
The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is a tall palm tree that produces large numbers of coconuts, which are not true nuts at all but rather fibrous drupes, with a hard outer shell, a fibrous inner shell, and a juicy liquid center. The coconut palm has spread across much of the tropics, but its origins are somewhat obscure, as coconuts float and take root wherever they happen to wash ashore. Some botanists claim the tree is native to southeastern Asia; others, northwestern South America. Dating from more than 15 million years ago, fossils of a small, coconut palm-like plant have been found in New Zealand and India. Coconuts were known in Egypt in the 6th century c.e., brought in from the shores of the Indian Ocean, and they are often used today in Middle Eastern cooking. They did not become known again in Europe until Marco Polo journeyed to Asia in the 13th century. They were “discovered” again by Ferdinand Magellan during his voyages to the East Indies and the South Pacific in the 16th century. It is unlikely that coconuts would have been known to the peoples of the Bible, as the coconut palm requires sufficient rainfall and circulating ground water in order to thrive.
Coconut palms produce coconuts at five to seven years of age. The individual coconuts can take an entire year to ripen, but the trees bloom year-round, and each flower spike can develop into a cluster of six to twelve coconuts; thus a tree can yield as many as seventy-five coconuts each year. Immature coconuts, known as spoon coconuts, are a delicacy: the interior is still soft and gelatinous, with a lively flavor, and is eaten from the shell with a spoon. Coconut milk, which is widely used as a cooking liquid in the tropics, is not actually the liquid found in the center of the coconut; that liquid is called coconut water. Coconut milk is the juice that comes from squeezing grated coconut meat that has been soaked in water. Coconut oil is extracted from copra, the dried coconut meat.
Coconuts are high in B vitamins, vitamin C, iron, potassium, and phosphorous. They have no cholesterol but are high in saturated fatty acids.
Coconuts are delicious when eaten raw, fresh from the shell. Their meat can also be dried, to extend its shelf-life and concentrate its nutrients.
Hearts of palm, also known as “millionaire's salad,” are the interior of the growing tip of the coconut tree; unfortunately, harvesting the tip will result in the death of the tree.
In addition to the fruit and its uses, coconut palms have also provided fiber for ropes and mats, lumber for construction, fronds for weaving and roof thatch, fuel for cooking, and even trunks that have been hollowed out into drums and canoes. Known in Sanskrit as “the tree which provides all the necessities of life” and in Malay as “the tree of a thousand uses,” the coconut palm truly lives up to its reputation.
The cranberry is a low, creeping shrub that grows in acidic bogs throughout the cooler Northern Hemisphere. Cranberries are part of the Oxycoccus subgenus of the Vaccinium genus, though some botanists name the genus Oxycoccus. The four species of cranberry are
- the common or northern cranberry (V. oxycoccus or O. palustris), which is native to northern Europe, northern Asia, and northern North America, and which produces a small pale pink berry
- the small cranberry (V. microcarpum or O. microcarpus), which is native to northern Europe and northern Asia
- the American cranberry (V. macrocarpon or O. macrocarpus), which is native to the northeastern part of North America and is the largest species
- the southern mountain cranberry (V. erythrocarpum or O. erythrocarpus), which is native to the high altitudes of the southeastern region of North America
Cranberries would not have appeared on the menus of the peoples of the Bible. Since prehistoric times, cranberries have been part of the diet of Arctic and northern peoples, who ate them both raw and cooked. Because raw cranberries are extremely acidic, native peoples often cooked them with honey or maple syrup used as a sweetener. They also pounded cranberries in with dried meat and melted animal fat to produce an edible mixture that could be stored for very long periods. Dried cranberries alone will keep almost indefinitely and are easily transportable. According to tradition, Native Americans introduced the starving Plymouth settlers to cranberry sauce in the early 17th century c.e., and the cranberry has been part of the U.S. Thanksgiving feast ever since.
The cultivation of cranberries probably began in the early 19th century in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. They are planted in diked fields, and when the berries are ripe, the fields are flooded and the bushes jostled about. The berries float and are easily skimmed off the surface of the water.
Cranberries provide potassium and vitamin C. They are made into jams, jellies, and juices. Fresh or dried, they are added to cakes, muffins, breads, and cookies. There is some evidence to suggest that cranberry juice reduces the rate of urinary tract infections. They are common today in Middle Eastern cooking.
Growing in clusters on vines like grapes, the currant is a member of the Gooseberry family. Currants come in three main varieties—red and white (Ribes rubrum) and black (actually, very dark purple or blue: R. nigrum)—though there are more than one hundred species of Ribes. The white is the sweetest, though the rarest; the red is the most common; the black is cultivated mainly for use in jams, jellies, liqueurs and cordials (crème de cassis and kir), and even ice cream, as it is very bitter when eaten fresh.
Native to temperate climates in the Northern Hemisphere (Europe, North America, and northern Asia), the currant would not have been known to the peoples of the Bible. Currant seeds have been found in a Danish archaeological site dating from before 4000 b.c.e., and Native Americans almost certainly enjoyed the plentiful red currants they could gather. Historic records indicate that the cultivation of currants began in the 16th century c.e. in Denmark, the Netherlands, and along the Baltic, though it is possible that currants were under cultivation before then. The currant quickly spread to England and France. By the 17th century, colonists had brought black currants to the Americas, where they flourished alongside the native red currants.
Though they are still common in Europe, currants are difficult to find today in North America because currant farming was banned in the United States in the early 1900s. Currant plants are host to a fungus that leaves them unaffected but moves on to cause blister rust, a disease that kills white pine trees. Because this pine was so valuable to the lumber industry, drastic steps were taken to eliminate the fungus. A resurgence of interest in native food products has brought the currant back into favor.
Currants are very high in vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. Of the varieties, the black currants have the most nutritional value when fresh but lose much of their vitamin C when cooked.
What are often referred to as “currants” in the Bible were really dried grapes (raisins). The word currant was a corruption of Corinth, where by circa 500 b.c.e. Dionysius had become the patron deity of vines and wine. This corruption carried over into Greek translations of the scriptures.
Among the sweetest of fruits, the date is the ripe fruit of the towering date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), which thrives in the dry, desertlike regions of northern Africa and the Middle East but is also now cultivated in California and Arizona. It is believed that dates originated in the area of what is present-day Iraq. Dates were domesticated before 3000 b.c.e.—indeed, they were one of the first fruits to be cultivated deliberately—and have become a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine. The peoples of the Bible would certainly have enjoyed dates, both fresh and dried; the Bible describes Jericho as the city of palm trees (Deuteronomy 34:3; Judges 1:16; II Chronicles 28:15), and Jericho was noted in the ancient world for the quality of its dates. Dates became available in Europe during the Middle Ages and were well known in England during Elizabethan times, though they were very expensive. Not until the European colonization of Africa and the Middle East did dates become easily affordable, and cultivation in California did not begin until the early 20th century c.e.
Dates come in three varieties: soft, semisoft, and dry. The semisoft Deglet Noor is the most often found in the market, though the semisoft Zahidi and Medjool are also available. The soft Barhi and the dry varieties are less popular, though dry dates are more likely to be stocked in health-food stores. Dried dates store extremely well, but semisoft dates need to be refrigerated.
Dates are high in dietary fiber and rich in sugar. They are often eaten alone, as a snack, or stuffed (with almonds, cheese, or fruit fillings). Dates can also add a sweet touch to stews, casseroles, and meat dishes, and they are a fine addition to many desserts.
The fig (Ficus carica), a member of the Mulberry family, has an ancient history. Probably native to Asia Minor, the fig was likely brought into cultivation circa 3500 b.c.e., as indicated by evidence found at archaeological sites in the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea region, and Sumerian clay writing tablets reveal that figs were being grown in Mesopotamia by 2500 b.c.e. Egyptians also recorded figs as early as 2750 b.c.e. Of course, Neolithic populations gathered and consumed wild figs, and remains have been found at archaeological sites dating from as early as about 7500 b.c.e. Ancient Athens was famous for its figs, and both Greek and Spartan athletes trained on a diet of them. Homer mentioned figs in both his Iliad and Odyssey, and archaeobotanists believe that the Greeks were accomplished cultivators of figs by the 7th century b.c.e. As the Greeks and Phoenicians colonized the Mediterranean basin, figs spread to Italy, Spain, and northern Africa, and by the 1st century c.e., about two dozen different varieties of figs were known throughout the Roman Empire. The Romans held the fig in high esteem: Romulus and Remus, the supposed founders of Rome, were said to have been suckled by the wolf beneath a fig tree, consequently held sacred by Romans; and on the first day of their year, many Romans gave one another presents of figs. There is also a sacred fig tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, which is believed to be a cutting of the bo tree that shaded the Buddha when he achieved nirvana. The Jewish tradition is not so kind to figs. The Bible mentions figs very early in the story of humankind, stating that Adam and Eve made clothing from fig leaves to hide their nakedness from God (Genesis 3:6-7); some scholars believe that the Tree of Knowledge mentioned in the Garden of Eden story may have been a fig tree. The Christian tradition is no kinder, for in the Gospels of Mark (11:13-14) and Matthew (21:19), Jesus curses the fig tree that has no fruit. At any rate, it is certain that the peoples of the Bible knew and enjoyed figs: for example, Isaiah instructed that a poultice made of figs be applied to cure King Hezekiah of his boils (II Kings 20:7). Figs spread as far north as England, and Shakespeare mentions them in both Othello and Antony and Cleopatra. Spanish colonists brought the fig to the Americas; California is now a major producer of figs.
By nature, the fig has an odd and unique botany. The “fruit” that humans consume is not actually a fruit but is, in fact, a hollow, fleshy receptacle containing tiny flowers. These flowers are pollinated and ripen their seeds without ever being exposed to the light. Wild figs are either male or female, and the “fruit” on the female trees will drop off unless pollinated by the male trees. The only way pollination can occur is by means of the tiny fig wasp (Blastophaga psenes), which lays its eggs in the male trees and then, as an adult, picks up pollen, flies to the female trees, and enters the “fruit” through a tiny hole to pollinate the flowers. This process is called “caprification” and was understood as early as the classical Greek era. The Smyrna variety of figs still requires caprification. As the product of centuries of cultivation and selection, the Common (or Adriatic) fig and the Mission fig produce mature, edible fruit without need of pollination. Figs come in a wide variety, large and small, winter and spring and summer, round and ovoid, and black, brown, red, purple, violet, green, yellow-green, yellow, and white. Some botanists list as many as seven hundred and fifty species of fig.
Beneath a pliable skin, figs have a sweet, soft, fleshy texture; the seeds are edible. Unfortunately, fresh figs have the shortest lifespan of any marketable fruit: about a week. As a result, the vast majority of the world's fig harvest is dried. Dried figs are a powerful nutritional package: high in energy (calories), fiber, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron.
Both fresh and dried figs can be eaten as they are; they can also serve as a supplemental or primary ingredient in baking, garnish salads or vegetable dishes, flavor poultry or pork recipes, and, because of their sweetness, serve as a wonderful base for jams and syrups.
The grape is one of the oldest cultivated fruits. Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites in present-day Switzerland, Germany, France, and the Balkans have turned up grape seeds, and archaeobotanists believe that the cultivation of grapes began about 8000 b.c.e. in the Fertile Crescent, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, along with the growing of olives, pomegranates, dates, and perhaps figs. Egyptian tombs from about 4000 b.c.e. are painted with scenes of grape cultivation. The ancient Sumerian epic Gilgamesh (dating from about 3000 b.c.e.) mentions grapes as part of the diet of the times, though these perhaps were the wild variety. The first reliable archaeological evidence of grape cultivation comes from a 3500 b.c.e. site in the Jordan Valley and a 3200 b.c.e. site at Jericho. Other archaeological evidence indicates that the ancient Greeks cultivated grapes by 1700 b.c.e., and the tomb of Tutankhamun (dated c. 1350 b.c.e.) contained a jar labeled as unfermented grape juice. Grapes were grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the Bible often mentions grapes, as early as Genesis (the first book of the Bible), which relates the story of Noah and what happened to him after he left the ark (9:20). By the time of the ancient Greek civilization, special varieties of grapes were being developed, some for eating as a dessert, some for fermenting into wine. The Romans further developed viticulture (the cultivation of grapes), probably spreading the grape into France, Spain, the Germanic lands, and other parts of Europe. Grape seeds have also been discovered in Native American sites dating from about 1800 b.c.e.; likely, Native Americans gathered grapes from the wild, though limited cultivation may have occurred. While the exact origins of the grape are unknown, it is believed that its birthplace is somewhere between the Caspian and Black Seas, where it still grows wild. The grape is now cultivated around the world in all but the coldest climates.
The wild grape (Vitis vinifera silvestris) is naturally a dioecious plant: individuals are either male or female and must grow in close proximity to produce pollination and fruit. Over the centuries, however, many varieties (some botanists count about eight thousand) have been developed, for both table eating and fermenting into wine, and most modern cultivars are hermaphroditic (both male and female) and can self-pollinate. Colonists brought European vines to the Americas, and French wine producers began to import American vines in the 1860s when an aphid (Phylloxera vastatrix) was decimating the French vineyards; grafting and crossing the aphid-resistant American species with the flavorful French species saved the French wine industry, but the search for a perfect combination continues.
Grapes can be eaten fresh or dried, dried grapes being known as raisins. Whether fresh or dried, grapes can be added to salads, pastas, chicken or fish or other meat dishes, breads, and baked desserts like cakes, cookies, and muffins. Frozen grapes make a fun and particularly refreshing treat. The ancient Romans used grape sugar as a sweetener, and the ancient Greeks stuffed grape leaves with various fillings, then cooked them for a succulent treat. Even grape seeds are edible, as garnishes, and some recipes call for grape-seed oil. Grapes can also be squeezed for their juice, and grape juice is one of the sweetest fruit juices available. The juice of grapes can be mixed with the juice of other fruits, such as lemons or grapefruits, to create particularly thirst-quenching drinks. The fermentation of grapes will be treated under wine.
The American and the European are the two basic types of grapes grown today, with the European being more popular and versatile. Seedless varieties have been developed over the centuries, though many gourmets insist that seeded grapes are more flavorful. The European grapes (V. vinifera) include the Black Beauty (Beauty Seedless), Calmeria, Cardinal, Champagne (Black Corinth), Emperor, Exotic, Flame Seedless, Italia (Italia Muscat), Perlette Seedless, Queen, Red Globe, Red Malaga, Ribier, Ruby Seedless, Thompson Seedless, and Tokay (Flame Tokay). The American grapes (V. labrusca and V. rotundita) include the Concord, Delaware, Niagara, and Steuben. In general, American grapes tend to have skin that separates easily from the flesh but seeds that are tightly embedded in the pulp.
Grapes are high in vitamin C; they are also high in calories but have no cholesterol.
There is much confusion between references to the hazelnut and the filbert, and the terms are often used interchangeably. One might say that the nuts are called hazelnuts in the Americas and filberts in Europe, although some experts say that they are altogether different. At any rate, the two are so closely related as to be almost indistinguishable, both in appearance and taste. They are the seeds of the deciduous shrubs (really, small trees) of the Corylus genus. Some of the varieties include the C. americana, C. avellana, C. maxima, and C. cornuta.
Hazelnuts (to use the American term) are generally thought to be native to southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia, though they are found throughout the northern temperate zone. Hazelnut remains have been found in Mesolithic dwellings in Europe and in Eocene sites in central Asia. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated hazelnuts, and they were known to the peoples of the Bible: Jacob flavored his cattle's drinking water with hazel twigs to help them conceive (Genesis 30:38). During the Middle Ages, hazelnut cultivation declined, as wild nuts were plentiful and easy to gather. Though many people consider the hazelnuts of North America to be inferior in taste to those of Europe and Asia, Native Americans flavored their cornmeal cakes with hazelnut powder. Today, hazelnuts/filberts are largely cultivated in Europe, Asia, Turkey, Australia, Washington, and Oregon.
Hazelnuts/filberts are rich in protein and folacin and provide significant amounts of calcium, thiamin, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, iron, and magnesium. They are also high in both calories and fat. Often eaten whole or chopped, hazelnuts make a nutritious snack. Hazelnut flour is used in many baking applications, as are hazelnut paste and butter, which also make delicious candy. Hazelnuts are one of the main ingredients of Nutella spread, and they are also used to flavor coffees and lattes.
Also known as juniper bush and juniper bark, juniper “berries” are the blue-black seed cones of the common juniper (Juniperus communis), a small evergreen tree that ranges throughout the temperate northern hemisphere. As the berries can take more than a year to ripen, a single plant will have both green and blue berries, and only the riper blue ones are ready for harvesting.
Ancient Greek and Arabian physicians used juniper berries to treat various diseases, and juniper trees are mentioned in I Kings, the book of Job, and Psalm 120 of the Bible. During the Black Death, desperate people sucked on the berries to protect themselves from infection, but juniper berries provide no protection against bubonic plague. During the early years of surgery, tea made from juniper berries was used to disinfect medical implements. Various peoples around the world have used juniper berries to treat warts and skin growths, cancers, upset stomach, kidney diseases, even hangovers. Today, juniper berries and their extracts help to treat urinary tract, bladder, kidney, and prostate infections. They also work as a diuretic, helping the body eliminate waste and toxins. They may also serve to improve digestion and ease stomach and intestinal cramps. Some herbalists claim that juniper berries can relieve rheumatic and arthritic pain, relieve congestion, and treat asthma.
Because they are very bitter, juniper berries are seldom consumed fresh. They are usually dried and crushed and serve to flavor luncheon meats, sauces, stuffings, and strong game meats. They are particularly important in making sauer-braten and sour beef stew. They are also one of the main flavoring agents in the production of gin.
The lemon (Citrus limon) probably originated in the eastern foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, as wild lemon trees still exist in that region, although historians occasionally suggest that lemons originated in the Indus Valley, in present-day India. On the other hand, some botanists assert that the lemon is not a distinct species at all but a hybrid, as it will not grow from seed. The history of the lemon, or citron as it is also known, is uncertain. The domestication and grafting of lemon trees is documented by the 4th or 3rd century b.c.e., but citron seeds are present in an archaeological site in Cyprus dating from 1200 b.c.e. It is possible that lemons were known to the peoples of the Bible, but lemons are not mentioned in the scriptures. However, they are today a key ingredient in Passover and Purim meals, and lemon juice is widely used in Middle Eastern cooking. By the time of the Roman Empire, lemons were common all around the Mediterranean region, where they thrived in the warm dry summers and cool wet winters. The Romans used the lemon tree more for timber, decoration, and medicine than for food. By the 8th century c.e., Muslims began uprooting grape vineyards and planting citrus groves, and their cuisine did feature the use of lemons and other citrus fruits for flavoring. The lemon symbolized fidelity in Renaissance art but did not gain wide acceptance in European cooking until the 17th century, when French cooks began using citrus juices in sauces for flavoring meat dishes, although the Italians may have begun using lemons in cooking as early as the 15th century. Christopher Columbus probably brought lemons to the Americas, and lemons were grown in Florida by the 16th century. Today, Sicily and California are major lemon-producing regions.
There are three types of lemons: common (or acid), which are the most readily available in the supermarkets of the world; rough, which are used primarily as rootstock for other citrus fruits; and sweet, which are not actually sweeter than other lemons but simply less acidic. Of the common lemons, the two main varieties are Eurekas and Lisbons.
Lemons are high in vitamin C and potassium and are used principally for the flavor they add to sauces, stews, dressings, and garnishes, as well as for lemonade (which must be sweetened somehow to be made palatable).
The lime (Citrus limetta) is a very close relative of the lemon, though some botanists believe that the lime is actually biologically identical to the lemon and is really a hybrid or mutation thereof (Citrus x aurantifolia). The history of limes, therefore, is probably similar to that of lemons, although some botanists believe that limes may have originated in Tahiti. It is not likely that the peoples of the Bible knew of limes, though they are currently an important ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking.
The main varieties of limes currently cultivated are Persian and Bearss, both of which are greenish-yellow when mature. Like lemons, limes grow more abundantly in California than Florida. Another type of lime is the Key lime of southern Florida, used primarily for pie flavoring. Like lemons, limes are used as flavoring in sauces, stews, and dressing, but they are also used in some cocktails. Limes are high in vitamin C and potassium and low in sugar.
An interesting historical note: Sailors of the Royal Navy became known as “limeys” because the British discovered that the consumption of citrus fruits prevented scurvy and thus provisioned their ships with limes and lemons.
There are hundreds of varieties of mango (Mangifera indica), which has been under cultivation since prehistoric times. It is thought to be native to the region of the eastern Indian subcontinent through to the land now known as Myanmar (or Burma), but there is no real way of knowing its origins. Given their preferred climate (wet and hot, without any possibility of frost), it is doubtful that mangoes were known to the peoples of the Bible, though mangoes are now not uncommon in Middle Eastern cuisine. The first reliable mention of the mango occurs in the account of Hwen T'sang, a Chinese traveler, in the 7th century c.e. News of the mango probably did not reach Europe until the 14th century, though Persian travelers probably brought mangoes to Africa by 1000. Mangoes were planted in Brazil in 1700 and in the West Indies shortly thereafter. By 1825 mangoes were being grown in Florida, the only state where they can reliably flourish. India remains an important mango producer, though Mexico, Central America, and Haiti are also major producers.
Mango trees grow to a height of 60 feet and begin to yield fruit when they are about seven years old. An individual fruit may weigh from 6 ounces to 5 pounds, depending on the variety. Usually round, oval, or kidney-shaped, they may also be shaped like hearts, pears, or peaches. Most mangoes are green when unripe and become golden, yellow, or red as they ripen, with orange flesh. The most common variety of mango is the Tommy Atkins, which is oval-shaped and somewhat fibrous with a bland taste. Other varieties include Haden, Kent, and Keitt, all of which have a rich flavor and smooth flesh, and Francine, which is completely green.
Mangoes are relatively high in calories and carbohydrates, but they are extremely rich in vitamins A and C and provide significant amounts of vitamin E and potassium. Usually eaten raw, mangoes are somewhat difficult and messy to extract from the peel and to separate from the interior pit. Raw mangoes are often combined with other fruits in a tropical fruit salad, used to garnish waffles or pancakes, mixed with yogurt, blended with other fruits and milk for a breakfast shake, used as a topping for cakes and puddings, or eaten as a fresh peach would be. Slightly underripe mangoes can be cooked in the same way as apples or peaches, and they add a nice flavor to meat and fish dishes. Mangoes are also a required ingredient for Indian chutneys.
Berries are not often mentioned in the Bible, but mulberry trees are mentioned in II Samuel 5, I Chronicles 14, and Luke 17:6; and Isaiah's mention (17:6) of berries probably referred to mulberries, for the mulberry is one of the few berries that would have been available in biblical times in the Middle and Near East. Actually, there are twelve species of mulberry; all but one are Asian in origin. The three main species are the black (Morus nigra) and the white (M. alba) from Asia, and the red (M. rubra) from North America.
The cultivation of black mulberries dates from at least 2000 b.c.e.; they were grown in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt and so would have been known to the peoples of the Bible. Both the Greeks and Romans ate mulberries, which very slowly spread north and west throughout Europe until their cultivation reached England in the 16th century c.e.
The white mulberry, generally held to be excessively sweet, is a traditional staple in Afghanistan, and some people in other parts of southwest Asia grind them to use as flour. White mulberry leaves are also used to feed silkworms.
The red mulberry is indigenous to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America, and it was so important that the Natchez named a month after it.
In general, mulberries contain high amounts of sugar and are rich in vitamin B and potassium. They can be eaten alone, combined in fruit salads, made into jams or jellies, added to desserts, or used to flavor other dishes.
As with all melons, cucumbers, and squashes, muskmelons (Cucumis melo) grow on low vines and like sandy, well-watered soil. Unlike squashes, which are native to the Americas, however, muskmelons and other melons originated in Africa and Asia. It is possible that early human ancestors may have domesticated melons as early as 2 million years ago, though hard archaeological evidence is limited to melon seeds found in Iran dating from perhaps 2000 b.c.e. and other seeds found in Greece dating from about 1000 b.c.e. The peoples of the Bible would have been familiar with muskmelons, either from Mesopotamia or from Egypt. Chinese writings from about the same time mention both sweet muskmelons and bitter pickling melons, and Chinese farmers have been growing melons since then. The ancient Romans grew melons that were probably far inferior to the sweet muskmelons we know today. It is believed that muskmelons did not truly become part of Mediterranean agriculture until introduced by Muslim farmers in the 8th century c.e. Marco Polo told of other melons he encountered during his travels in the 13th century, and melons became extremely popular in England during the 16th and 17th centuries. European colonists introduced melons to the Americas, and that's when confusion over nomenclature began, for what is called a cantaloupe in America is called a muskmelon in Europe, the European cantaloupe being an entirely different type of melon (see cantaloupe).
Often eaten fresh, muskmelons make a wonderful addition to fruit salads, yogurt, and cereals and a fine complement to chicken and tuna salads, ice creams, and sherbets. Muskmelon can be puréed and made into a cold soup or fruit drink, and melon slices can even be grilled.
Muskmelons are generally high in vitamins A and C and potassium.
The olive (Olea europea) has been a staple of the human diet for many millennia. Olive pits (or stones) have been found in archaeological deposits at Mount Carmel dating from 9000 b.c.e., though it is impossible to say whether these particular olives were gathered from the wild or cultivated. The first conclusive archaeological evidence of olive cultivation comes from Tuleilat Ghassul, north of the Dead Sea in modern-day Jordan, at a site that dates from the 4th century b.c.e. It is believed that the olive was cultivated in Crete by 3500 b.c.e. Sites in Palestine and Syria indicate that the ancients were pressing olives into oil by about 3500 b.c.e. Olive berries, trees, wood, and oil were very important to the peoples of the Bible and are mentioned scores of times in the Judeo-Christian scriptures.
The cultivated olive is probably a descendant of the wild olive (O. europea ssp. oleaster), which is native to the Mediterranean region and grows particularly well in Greece and the islands of the Aegean Sea. In the wild, the olive is a straggly evergreen. Olives are basically inedible when picked and need to be soaked in a salt solution to temper their bitterness, though fruits that have fallen from the trees and “aged” for a time on the ground are more palatable, and such are probably the first olives that ancient humans consumed.
The ancient Greeks began cultivating olives by 1000 b.c.e., and Greek and Phoenician colonists planted olives all along the North African, Italian, Sicilian, and Spanish coasts and perhaps even in the Canary Islands. The trees are very easily rooted and grown from cuttings. Spanish settlers brought the olive to the Pacific coast of South America, where it flourished in Chile and Peru. By the 17th century c.e., Jesuit missionaries had brought the tree to Mexico and California, where it thrived. The olive also took root in parts of Australia and in South Africa. Olive trees need full sunlight; they do not tolerate hard frosts or freezing temperatures; they thrive on 8 to 10 inches of annual rainfall but will not produce fruit if the climate is wet or humid; they rarely grow on land that is above 2,000 feet in altitude; and they may live for three hundred to six hundred years.
Olive oil was a real luxury among the ancient Greeks, who used it, for example, as an after-bath moisturizer and as an oil for anointing the dead. As time passed, it became more available and took its place in the common home, providing oil for cooking, oil for lamps, and soap for baths. Whole, green olives were soaked in a solution made from ashes and then pickled in brine, to make them edible. In ancient Rome, the well-to-do ate olives as appetizers and as end-of-the meal fresheners; main courses also relied heavily on olives. Olives and bread were said to have been the staple foods of the Roman working classes. The Romans also cooked the fragrant parts of the olive tree (such as the flowers, leaves, or roots), which they then mixed with olive oil to make a scented oil, or perfume. The ancient Greeks, Hebrews, and Romans also believed olive oil capable of restoring health and adding longevity; and we now know that the olive tree does contain salicylic acid, the active ingredient of aspirin. (We also know that olives are high in unsaturated fats and thus can help prevent the buildup of cholesterol in the body.) In ancient Egypt, olive oil was thought to have been used as a lubricant for moving large stones. Throughout the Mediterranean, olive oil helped preserve fish. The Israelites used olive wood, hard and strong and beautifully grained, to construct the tabernacle of Solomon's temple.
The ancient Greeks also used olives as a symbol of peace, victory, wealth, and prosperity. Both victors in athletic contests and successful warriors were decorated with olive sprays. Supplicants bestowed gifts of olive branches or trees to indicate peaceful intentions or submission.
Olives today come in a variety of flavors resulting from different curing and pickling processes. Essentially, however, there are two types of olives: green, picked and cured before they ripen, and black, picked when they are ripe.
The most widely grown fruit in the world, the orange is thought to have descended from trees native to what is now southern China. Chinese records indicate that cultivation of oranges (probably the bitter orange, Citrus aurantium) began as early as 2400 b.c.e., but oranges made their way east very slowly. There is no reliable record of oranges west of the Indian subcontinent until the 1st century c.e., when coast-hugging Arab boats brought oranges to the Roman port of Ostia, via the Red Sea, the Nile, and the Mediterranean. Always sensitive to cold, oranges did not receive sufficient care after the collapse of the empire and so disappeared from Europe. The Moors reintroduced oranges to Europe when they conquered Spain and by the 12th century had planted vast citrus orchards in the lands surrounding Granada, Seville, and Valencia. In Sicily, the Saracens cultivated oranges by the 11th century, and oranges made their way back to Rome by the 13th century. They were imported to England from Spain as early as the 13th century and were grown in Mediterranean France by the 14th century. Christopher Columbus brought oranges to the Americas, where they thrived in the Caribbean climate and from there spread to Mexico, Brazil, Florida, and eventually California. They also made their way to Australia. Brazil is today the world's largest producer of oranges.
There are several important oranges grown today: the bitter, which is probably the ancestor of the others and which is best for cooking and is used for marmalade; the sweet (C. sinensis), which the Portuguese brought to Europe in the 16th century, and of which the Valencia is the most widely grown; and the mandarin (C. deliciosa and C. reticulata), which is believed to be a mutation of the sweet orange and is sometimes known as the tangerine (although the tangerine may be a subgroup of the mandarin). The navel orange, prevalent today, is probably a mutation of the sweet orange and first appeared in Brazil in the 17th century. The clementine, first discovered in Algeria in 1902 by Clement Rodier, is thought to be either a mutation of the sweet orange or a hybrid of a sweet orange and a mandarin. Other important types include the Jaffa orange, which originated as a mutation on a tree near Jaffa, in present-day Israel, in the 19th century, and the blood orange, which is extremely sweet.
Oranges are consumed whole (once peeled), squeezed for their juice, or used in cooking. They are extremely high in vitamin C, which is concentrated in the white pulpy layer just beneath the peel, and there is some conflicting evidence about whether vitamin C helps to heal cuts, prevents cancer, lowers cholesterol, or shortens or prevents colds and the flu. Oranges are also high in potassium and have significant amounts of folacin and calcium. But they are also high in sugar and low in fiber. Oranges are a source of expensive perfume oils, extracted from either the rind or the flowers.
Orange trees are still susceptible to freezing temperatures, but genetic manipulation has produced trees with inferior fruit that can survive cold winters. Further manipulation and hybridization may eventually produce a hardy tree that bears high-quality fruit.
Oranges would probably not have been known to the peoples of the Bible, but the fruit is now an important ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking.
The pecan (Carya illinoensis, also known as C. olivaeformis) is a peculiarly North American nut, produced by the tree known as the Illinois hickory. This hickory naturally ranges from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico and from Alabama to the Rocky Mountains and received its scientific name because French missionary-scientists probably first encountered it in the Illinois area. Thomas Jefferson brought the trees to the Atlantic coast. Today, Georgia is the leading producer of pecans in the world, and 95 percent of the world's pecan harvest is produced in the United States.
The pecan was a versatile food staple for Native Americans, who pressed oil from the nuts to use in cooking, ground the nuts to thicken stews, mixed the whole nuts with vegetables, and even roasted the nuts to preserve them for consumption during long hunting or other journeys.
Pecans are very high in energy (calories); of all the nuts, they are among the highest in fat and the lowest in protein.
The pecan is a difficult tree to grow. It requires high summer temperatures both day and night and is often particular about the soil in which it grows. The trees require a large amount of space and take a long time, sometimes twenty years, to reach full productivity, at which point a tree can give from 100 to 600 pounds of nuts each year. Because of these difficulties, and because the taste of the pecan has been considered too close to that of the walnut, which thrives in Europe and other parts of the world, the pecan tree has not been widely planted outside of North America, though it has been cultivated in Israel, with significant success.
Pecans would not have been known to the peoples of the Bible, but modern Middle Eastern cooks rely upon a variety of nuts, including pecans, to flavor their foods.
There are perhaps as many as two hundred species of persimmon, but only five produce fruit that is readily eaten: the American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), which is native to North America; the Japanese (D. kaki), which is actually native to China; the black; the date plum (D. lotus), from the Himalayan region; and the monkey guava, swamp ebony, African ebony, bush kaki, or soun-soun (D. mespiliformia), which is grown in tropical Africa. Native Americans gathered persimmons for centuries before the European colonization of the Americas. The Japanese imported and adopted their persimmons so long ago that it has become one of their traditional New Year foods. Persimmons would not have been known to the peoples of the Bible but are often found in modern Middle Eastern recipes.
The persimmon is the latest ripener of all tree fruits, reaching ripeness well into autumn, after cool, even cold, weather has set in. Persimmons are either astringent or nonastringent, and the astringent fruits, though sweet and spicy when ripe, are extremely bitter and unpalatable when not. Because of its ripening schedule, the persimmon has not become widely popular, and most of the persimmons eaten in the United States are imported Japanese varieties: the Hachiya and the Fuyu.
Persimmons are high in vitamins A and C and potassium. Persimmons can be eaten like an apple, whole, peeled, or pared, or added to salads. They can be pressed to make a dessert sauce or a sauce for chicken or other meat dishes. Sliced or chopped, they can be used like apples in cakes and muffins. Mashed, they can substitute for applesauce in some baked goods.
The pineapple (Ananas comosus) is a member of the Bromelia family. Native to the Caribbean islands and to Central and South America, the pineapple would not have been known to the peoples of the Bible, though it has entered some Middle Eastern kitchens in modern times. It was first “discovered” by members of Christopher Columbus' expeditions, though Native Americans had been cultivating the pineapple for so long (many millennia) that it had already lost its ability to produce seeds. European explorers fell in love with the pineapple, so-called because of its resemblance to a pine cone (pina means “pine” in Spanish), and within a very short time the pineapple was imported to tropical areas around the world. The pineapple is relatively easy to propagate: the crown of the fruit can be planted and will readily grow if the climate is right. By the 16th century pineapples were abundant in India, Java, and even China. They made their way to Africa by the 17th century and to the Pacific islands by the 18th. By the 17th century they were even cultivated in hothouses in England, France, and the Netherlands. Today most pineapple comes from Hawaii, the Philippines, Thailand, Mexico, and Central American countries. Pineapples are ripened on the plant and spoil quickly on the shelf, so it is important to get them to market quickly, and shoppers should choose those that are as fresh as possible.
The three major varieties of pineapple are Smooth Cayenne, which is the most popular as many people consider it to taste the best; Red Spanish, which has a tough shell that protects it during shipping; and Sugar Load, which is the largest, weighing from 5 to 10 pounds.
Pineapples are high in vitamin C, potassium, and manganese and have no cholesterol. Fresh pineapple contains the enzyme bromelain, which aids in the digestion of protein; if pineapple is used as a base for a marinade, this enzyme will break down the connective tissue of the marinating meat, and lengthy exposure will turn the meat to mush. Cooking the pineapple destroys the enzyme, and any meat dishes that rely upon pineapple will usually call for cooked pieces (or for the pineapple to be cooked simultaneously with the meat). Pineapple is most often eaten raw, sliced or cubed, fresh from the shell. It can be combined with other tropical fruits into a salad, added to lettuce salads, or mixed with yogurt or sorbet. Pineapple pieces and pineapple juice can sweeten vegetable dishes and can be baked with chicken or pork, stir-fried with chicken or shrimp and vegetables, or added to curry. Thick pineapple slices can even be grilled with seafood, chicken, and other fruits and vegetables.
The pine nut—also known as the pignoli, pinon nut, and Indian nut—is a collect-all name for the various seeds that come from the pine cones of nut pine trees, of the Pine family. These nuts range from the slender ivory-colored pignolis of the Mediterranean, gathered from the Stone pine (Pinus pinea) and the Swiss pine (P. cembra), to the much larger nuts of the Americas, mostly from the Colorado pinyon (P. edulis), the single-leaf pinyon (P. monophylla), and the Mexican pinyon (P. cembroides). Eight other types of American pinyons produce pine nuts, as well as the gray pine (P. sabineana), Torrey pine (P. torreyana), and sugar pine (P. lambertiana). There are also several Asian pines that produce edible pine nuts: the Korean pine (P. koraiensis), the Chilgoza pine (P. gerardiana), and, to a lesser degree, the Siberian pine (P. sibirica), the Siberian dwarf pine (P. pumila), the Chinese white pine (P. armandii), and the lacebark pine (P. bungeana). In South America, the nuts of the monkey-puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) are often called pine nuts, as are the nuts of the bunya-bunya (A. bidwillii) of Australia.
High in protein but also high in fat, rich in thiamin, iron, and magnesium, pine nuts have been a staple of the human diet since ancient times. Nowadays, they are relatively expensive, as the harvesting process is lengthy: the pine cones must be dried to release the nuts, then the nuts must be shelled to free the kernels.
Archaeologists believe that nut pine trees have been cultivated since about 4000 b.c.e. Of course, for many millennia before, humans collected pine nuts from the wild, to provide supplementary protein and energy-rich fat for their diet. It is likely that the peoples of the Bible gathered and consumed some type of pine nuts.
Pine nuts, particularly pignolis, are an essential ingredient of pesto but add flavor and texture to meat, fish, and vegetable dishes, as well as chocolate desserts and baklava. The shelf-life of unshelled pine nuts is long if they are dry and refrigerated, but once shelled, pine nuts do not last more than a few weeks.
The pistachio (Pistacia vera) is probably a native of Persia, in southwestern Asia, and has been part of the human diet since prehistoric times. The earliest pistachio nuts have been found at an archaeological site in what is now northeastern Iraq, dating from 6750 b.c.e. But the pistachio did not become an important part of the diet until about 2000 b.c.e., when the population of the area increased significantly, and it has not left the table since then. Pistachios were grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (about 700 b.c.e.) and are mentioned in the Old Testament (Genesis 43:11), so many peoples of the Bible favored pistachios in their meals. According to tradition, Emperor Vitellius brought pistachios to the Roman Empire sometime before 69 c.e. Cooks of the Middle Ages preferred almonds to pistachios because of the latter's expense, but it is believed that the Moors planted many pistachio trees in Spain and Sicily and northern Africa, and from there pistachio cultivation spread throughout the Mediterranean. Nowadays, California and Florida grow a good number of pistachios, but Turkey is a major producer. A relative, P. mexicana, is native to Mexico; its nuts are slightly less flavorful than pistachios. There is also a Chinese relative, P. chinensis, but it is almost exclusively ornamental.
High in protein, pistachios are also high in energy, or calories (mostly from fat). They also supply significant amounts of iron, thiamin, and phosphorus.
In cooking, appearance and presentation are as significant as taste, texture, and aroma, and as one of the few green ingredients suitable for desserts, pistachio nuts have become a popular addition to cakes, pastries, and even ice cream.
The shells of pistachios are tan or light brown, and they naturally split open as the pistachios mature to reveal the light-green nut inside. During the 20th century, many importers and growers dyed (and some still dye) their pistachio shells red in order to make them distinctive in the marketplace. But the dye colors the nuts as well as the shells. As there are some health threats associated with the red dye, it is safest to use natural, undyed pistachios.
The plum is one of the most succulent fruits provided by nature. Related to the nectarine, peach, and apricot, plums have developed into a wide variety of colors, shapes, sizes, and flavors. Two species dominate plum cultivation: the common (also known as European) plum (Prunus domestica) and the Japanese (also known as salicina) plum (P. salicina).
The common plum has blue or purple skin and golden-yellow flesh, and is usually freestone (the flesh separates easily from the pit). These are the plums invariably dried for prunes, as they tend to be small and dense. They are also used for baking, stewing, and making preserves. Some of the better-known varieties include Italian, President, Empress, Stanley, and Tragedy.
The Japanese plum has red to black-red skin and yellow or red flesh and is usually clingstone (the flesh clings to the pit). They are usually eaten fresh, though some serve for cooking. Among the better-known varieties are El Dorado, Freedom, French, Santa Rosa, Red Beaut, Friar, Nubiana, Queen Rosa, Casselman, Laroda, Simka, and Elephant Heart. Wickson and Kelsey are unusual green-skinned varieties.
The original wild plum is not known, and the common plum is probably a hybrid or fusion of several species:
- the sloe plum (P. spinosa), whose pits have been discovered in Swiss Neolithic or Bronze Age sites
- the bullace plum, which may also be P. spinosa but which many botanists classify as P. institia
- the damson plum (P. damascena), which the ancient Romans imported from Damascus by the 1st century c.e.; these plums had been cultivated in ancient Mesopotamia and had been among the plants in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (and would have been known to the peoples of the Bible)
- the cherry plum (P. cerasifera), which originated in Asia Minor as well
The ancient Romans may have been the ones to bring these species together to produce the common plum.
The Japanese plum is probably native to China but was adopted by Japan so long ago and improved so much since then that it now is truly Japanese. The many varieties of Japanese plums adapt well to different soils and climates and are resistant to insects and diseases.
A third plum that has some agricultural importance is the American plum (P. americana). Native to either North or South America, the American plum entered cultivation under the Incas in the 1st or 2nd century b.c.e. It has continued to be a wild tree in North America; English colonists in the 17th century c.e. planted common plums, much superior to the American plums, and did not see the need to try to bring the native species into the garden.
Among a number of other North American species, there is also the beach plum (P. maritima), which grows along the Atlantic coast. Small with tough skin, it is somewhat acidic but makes marvelous preserves, jams, and jellies.
Fresh plums are high in vitamin C, carbohydrates, and calories; they have no cholesterol. Japanese plums are the ones most often consumed raw, while the common plum is better suited for cooking purposes. Fresh plums are delicious in fruit salads, with yogurt, or over cereal. Pureed plums can be made into a dessert sauce or fruit soup. Plum pieces can be added to muffins, breads, and lettuce salads. Plums can be baked or poached and served whole, sliced, or chopped. Plum preserves and jellies are quite popular, and Chinese duck sauce is a sweet-and-sour mix of vinegar, hot peppers, sugar, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, apricots, and plums. Plums are also fermented into wine and distilled into brandy.
Quite simply, the prune is a dried plum, commonly of the California French or d'Agen plum variety, allowed to mature on the tree so that they are fully ripe and sweet, then harvested, dried, sorted, and moisturized before storing. Prunes are extremely high in soluble fiber, which may help to lower blood cholesterol. Also high in calories and carbohydrates, prunes provide significant amounts of vitamins A and B6 and E, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, and riboflavin.
Portable and convenient, prunes can be eaten as a snack or diced and added to cakes, cookies, breads, and other baked goods. They can be puréed into fruit shakes, served with yogurt, and added to pancakes or cereal. Chicken, beef, lamb, and pork roasts and stews can be sweetened with prunes, as can stuffings, mashed potatoes, and squash dishes. Prunes can even be cooked in brandy and served as a side dish; and prune juice is sweet enough to serve as a sugar substitute. Like plums, prunes are often called for in Middle Eastern recipes.
Raisins are dried grapes. As a dried fruit, they are a concentrated source of calories and nutrients, including vitamin B6, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, and thiamin. They are also high in dietary fiber and have no cholesterol.
Raisins were probably first “discovered” when a prehistoric hunter-gatherer picked naturally dried grapes from a wild vine, but by 1000 b.c.e. farmers were deliberately picking grapes and laying them out to dry in the sun. The process is almost unchanged to this day. Middle Eastern merchants profited from a thriving raisin trade in ancient times, and raisins would have been precious to the peoples of the Bible. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans would have enjoyed raisins, which have an extended shelf-life and thus can provision travelers who embark on long journeys. Spanish missionaries brought raisins to the Americas, and today approximately half of the world's raisins come from California.
Four kinds of grapes are used to produce most raisins: Thompson Seedless (which are the popular green grapes found in the fresh-produce sections of grocery stores), Muscat, Sultana, and Black Corinth. The raisins themselves are classified as follows:
- Natural seedless raisins, which are sun-dried Thompson Seedless grapes; dark brown, they constitute a vast majority of the raisins on the market
- Currants, which are made from Black Corinth grapes; they are seedless, very dark, and tiny, about one-quarter the size of natural seedless raisins
- Golden seedless raisins, which are oven-dried Thompson Seedless grapes; they are chemically treated to keep them light
- Monukka raisins, which are dried Monukka seedless grapes; they are large and dark
- Muscat raisins, which are dried Muscat grapes; large and brown, they have seeds unless they have been mechanically de-seeded
- Sultanas, which are dried Sultana grapes; they are large and soft and tend to be yellow-green in color
Raisins can be eaten as a snack, either alone or mixed with nuts and other dried fruits. They are stirred into yogurt, added to cereal and oatmeal, used in breads,cakes, and cookies, and mixed into applesauces and puddings. They provide a sweet flavor to stuffings for meat or poultry, vegetable dishes, curries, pilafs, and salads.
Human hunter-gatherers have been gathering and eating raspberries throughout northern Europe, Asia, and North America since prehistoric times. Raspberry seeds have been discovered in Denmark at an archaeological site dating from the 3rd millennium b.c.e. and in Bronze Age and ancient Roman sites in northern Europe. Native Americans also gathered berries from the indigenous raspberry canes, taking advantage of the plant's wide range and abundant productivity. The three main native raspberry species are the red raspberry of Europe (Rubus idaeus), the red raspberry of America (R. strigosus), and the black raspberry of America (R. occidentalis), though there are hundreds of others, particularly in Asia. Botanists believe that all raspberries originated in eastern Asia and spread west and east from there. It is doubtful that the peoples of the Bible were familiar with raspberries, which do not thrive in dry regions, but modern irrigation has made them available to today's Middle Eastern cooks.
In ancient Greece and Rome, the wild raspberry was known for its medicinal effects: its blossoms were thought to make a salve for sore eyes and a potion for stomach ailments, according to Pliny the Elder. By the 4th century c.e., raspberries had supposedly been domesticated in Italy, according to the poet Pal-ladius, though even through the 16th century the raspberry was still considered a medicinal plant in Europe, and wild raspberries were so plentiful that there was little need to domesticate them. Raspberry leaf tea was a popular (and effective) remedy for diarrhea, sore throats, and burns and other wounds. As the Renaissance progressed and fresh fruits and vegetables became more acceptable for eating, gardeners began improving raspberries to produce larger and more abundant fruit. Colonists brought these new raspberry canes with them to the Americas, where they crossbred with the native American raspberries to create high-yielding cultivars that were resistant to heat, cold, and drought. In the 20th century new viruses and diseases threatened raspberry farming, and farmers and botanists are using cutting-edge genetic manipulation techniques to create stronger raspberry cultivars. Today, red raspberries are farmed mainly in Scotland, England, eastern Europe, western North America, Chile, New Zealand, and southern Australia. Black raspberries are grown in western North America. Other varieties include those with yellow, apricot, amber, and purple fruit.
Raspberries are the most fragile of all the berries, and they have a very short shelf-life of only a day or two. Fortunately, raspberries are easily and safely frozen: wash and drain them thoroughly, spread them out in a single layer on a nonstick surface, and place them in the freezer. When they are frozen solid, they may be gathered together into a plastic container and will store for almost a year. But they are delicious when freshly picked, and they make a refreshing addition to fruit salads or fruit and yogurt shakes, a sweet topping for waffles or cereal, and a flavorful ingredient for breads and muffins. Cooked with other berries and berry juices and combined with cornstarch, raspberries will make an intriguing dessert sauce. They can even be added to sparkling wines for an elegant effect.
Raspberries, though high in calories, are also high in vitamin C and potassium.
The Sultana is a type of raisin.
The walnut (Juglans regia) is otherwise known as the Persian nut or Persian walnut because the ancient Romans obtained walnuts from Persia. The original range of wild walnuts, however, extends much beyond Persia to include southeastern Europe all the way to the Himalayas. By prehistoric times, the walnut had spread well beyond this range, and Neolithic remains in Switzerland include stores of walnuts. The Babylonians grew walnuts; the Greeks pressed out walnut oil; and the Romans considered walnuts a luxury to be eaten as dessert. While not specifically mentioned in the scriptures, walnuts would almost certainly have been part of the diet of the peoples of the Bible. Walnuts also spread east and were recorded in China by 100 b.c.e. Intensive cultivation of walnuts began in the Grenoble region of present-day France as early as the 4th century c.e., and walnuts were used to flavor other foods. By the 11th century, walnut oil was used as a flavoring in Paris. Menus of the 14th century listed walnuts as dessert offerings, and walnut paste began to flavor sauces and to thicken stews and soups. Walnuts arrived in the British Isles in the 16th century. The English brought walnuts to the Americas, but this species of walnut did not survive the climate and did not take root in the Americas until they were introduced in Oregon and California.
The Americas, however, had their own native walnut: the Eastern black walnut (J.nigra). Archaeological findings indicate that Native Americans had been eating black walnuts since at least 2000 b.c.e., though it is probable that black walnuts were a part of their diet well before then.
Both species of walnut are readily available in the marketplace today. The Persian walnut is generally thought to be finer in flavor and is much more common; while sweet and oily, the black walnut has a stronger taste that some people find unpalatable, and it has a thicker, tougher shell than the Persian. Yet black walnuts combine extremely well with chocolate and are superior for flavoring ice cream.
Of late, walnuts, particularly the Persian variety, have made somewhat of a comeback as a main-course food because the proteins in walnuts are perhaps the closest among those of all vegetables, except soybeans, to animal proteins. Walnuts are now used in salads, combined with vegetables, and used in many dessert treats, in addition to being eaten alone. While rich in fats, they are also valuable sources of potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and sulphur acids.
The watermelon (Citrullus lanatus or C. vulgaris) is a type of melon that originated in southern Africa, probably evolving from the tsamma melon (C. lanatus var. citroides), which still grows wild. It is a vinelike flowering plant, usually low growing, that bears a false berry (an accessory fruit that develops when the sepals, petals, and stamens all ripen along with the ovary; other examples of false berries include bananas,cucumbers,squashes, pumpkins, cranberries, and blueberries). It is possible that our human ancestors domesticated melons as early as 2 million years ago, though hard archaeological evidence is limited to Egyptian hieroglyphs from about 3000 b.c.e., and archaeologists believe that pharaohs had watermelons placed in their tombs to feed them in the afterlife. In Egyptian myth, watermelons came from the semen of the god Set. The ancient Israelites would have become familiar with watermelons during their time in Egypt. The Chinese were growing watermelons by the 10th century c.e., and the Moors brought watermelons to Europe by the 13th century. The melon had made its way to England by the 17th century. Some botanists believe that watermelons may also be indigenous to North America, though most assert that European colonists and African slaves brought watermelon seeds to the Americas, beginning in the 16th century, and that the climate of North America was so favorable that watermelons spread quickly, either through cultivation or by escaping from domestic gardens into the wild.
About fifty different varieties of watermelon are now grown world-wide, the larger types being called “picnic” melons and the smaller, “ice-box” melons. The skin or rind of watermelons varies from gray to deep green, either dappled, streaked, or solid in color, with the underside yellowish. Almost all watermelons have sweet red flesh, but a few have orange or yellow flesh, and the flesh is about 92 percent water and 8 percent sugar. Watermelon flesh provides vitamin C, potassium, and beta-carotene and is usually eaten fresh from the melon, though it is delicious when used in a fruit salad or blended with other fruits and fruit juices in a refreshing drink called a smoothie. Watermelon seeds are also edible; they tend to be high in fat calories, but they are tasty when roasted and salted. Some seedless varieties of watermelon have been developed. Watermelon rinds are sometimes eaten as a vegetable, and the Chinese stir-fry, stew, and pickle the rinds; pickled watermelon rind is popular elsewhere as well.
The watermelon can also be used to make an alcoholic treat called a hard watermelon. A hole is cut into the rind, then the liquor or liqueur is poured inside; after some time, when the alcohol has permeated the watermelon's flesh, the melon is cut and served in intoxicating slices.