Top | Giovanna's Trifles at Culinate

You say Arugula, I say Rocket

(post, Giovanna Zivny)

Somewhere along the way, arugula got a nasty reputation.  If you search for arugula on wikipedia, you get directed to the entry for Eruca Sativa.  There you’ll see that it’s a member of the Brassicaceae family, along with other humble vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, and turnips.

Why did eating arugula become the kind of thing that could get you branded as an elitist?  When did it become necessary for political candidates to think twice before ordering arugula off a menu?  It’s hard to imagine such a to-do over a leafy green.  I mean, how can a plant so easy to grow  (even a non-green-thumb like myself has trouble keeping up with its production) be elite?  Surely no one would consider gathering dandelion greens from the front yard (or an abandoned lot) to be privileged—so what’s wrong with arugula?

When I first ate arugula (I’m taking a chance here, but since I have no interest in running for political office, here goes…) back in the late 1970’s, we called it roquette.  That’s right, a (gasp) French word.  If you think Italian is bad, think about the heat all things French have taken lately—or even just the things that alluded to France, a la French Fries.  If we could turn those into Freedom Fries, just imagine what roquette might have become:  Red, White, and Blue Greens; Victory Cress, or maybe Patriot’s Salad.  I kind of like the last name.  It recalls Thomas Jefferson, who, after all, planted arugula in his kitchen garden at Monticello, and wrote of it as one of the essential kitchen garden plants.

Thirty years ago or so, when my mother first put arugula into our salad, in my memory no one in the family cared for it.  In fact, we thought it was awful—the unfamiliar bitter taste was shocking.  Actually, my mother insisted she liked it.  I have no reason to doubt her, but I have to admit that as a child I suspected her of that typical, age-old mother trick: saying anything to get a kid to eat something that was good for them.  

At some point, tastes changed.  You might think it was just growing up, and the mature me learned to like it.  But I don’t think it’s that simple—I’m pretty sure my father wasn’t crazy about it that first time, and, likewise, my kids have eaten it mixed in salads for a long time.  Today, one of my family’s favorite pasta recipes, from ‘Chez Panisse Vegetables’ is made with roasted potatoes, arugula, rosemary, and onions.  Just the other night I made a sort of shepherds pie, layering mashed potatoes with leftover ham and plenty of arugula.  It was a hit with the whole family.  This is one case where familiarity doesn’t breed contempt.

I’ve been writing about arugula here, but that’s not what I call it.  I call it rocket.  According to ‘The Gourmet Cookbook’ it’s called that in Britain and on the West Coast.  But I have to admit, here on the West Coast, most people and menus I run into call it arugula.  And everything I read suggests that Jefferson also called it arugula.   

The fact is I call it rocket because I know how to say rocket.  Despite being named Giovanna and having a reasonable grasp on the basics of Italian pronunciation, I can never remember if arugula is pronounced uh-roo-guh-luh or uh-roo-gyuh-luh.  I’m pretty sure it’s the first, but I’ve heard the other and it confuses me.  

Perhaps if I’d seen the musical ‘Fanny at Chez Panisse’ and heard the song ‘Arugula, Arugula, Arugula’ I’d remember the right way to say it.  But I didn’t.  So I’ll just call it rocket.