Arugula’s history is a long one, with many rises and falls in popularity throughout the centuries and appearances in famous literature leading up to its current prevalence in modern cuisine.
Arugula has been around for quite a while. It was even mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Kings (II Kings 4:39, to be exact, in case you want to check). So we know that arugula’s history is a long one and that it was harvested as early as the 6th century B.C.
Aside from the Bible, the nutty green makes appearances in various works throughout history. Five hundred years or so after arugula made an appearance in the Old Testament, Virgil penned a poem mentioning our favorite salad leaf: et Venerem revocans eruca morantem (or, loosely translated, “… and arugula, which recalls the lagging wish for sexual delights”).
We believe this is the first-ever mention of arugula as a precursor to Viagra. Interpret it as you may, though.
The peppery green also appears in Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis (circa 77 AD). Pliny the Elder was a respected soldier, lawyer, & writer who did a fair amount of research on the effects and benefits of arugula, the whole of which is chronicled in his encyclopedic masterwork. Thanks to his observations, we know that arugula was used as an anesthetizing agent and was prized as an aphrodisiac, a claim that has echoed throughout the ages (with surprisingly little actual proof).
Throughout arugula’s history, its standing as a salad green fluctuated between countries, with its popularity waning in countries like England but soaring in Germany. In Italy, however, arugula was a constant presence in everyday meals, with Italians growing and eating arugula throughout its decline in universal popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Then along came the foodie culture, and arugula was no longer history. In The United States of Arugula, David Kamp documents the fairly recent rise of this culture in the United States. Throughout the book, arugula shares the stage with free-range chickens and artisanal cheeses, heirloom tomatoes, and other food that has elevated American cooking to “cuisine” in the past 20-odd years.
With a generation of more adventurous eaters (with more refined palates) eschewing iceberg in favor of more flavorful salad greens, arugula’s modern moment has arrived. Today, our favorite green is not only found in even the smallest corner groceries, but is regularly showing up on menus from Momofuku’s to McDonald’s.