|The Celery Vase: A Prominent Way to Serve an Exotic Vegetable |
by priceminer (08/04/09).
According to the early nineteenth century writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in “The Physiology of Taste,” gastronomy required “intelligent knowledge of whatever concerns man’s nourishment.”
Brillat-Savarin’s 1825 treatise on the fine art of foods was the first treatment of dining as an art form. The newly developing interest in food appropriately reflected a growing awareness of gastronomy that flowered during the Victorian period. However, 19th-century consumers must have taken the author quite literally when they read, “the discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.”
Of the multitude of dishes—on which food was served, as opposed to the food itself—offered to the middle-class consumers, perhaps one of the most unique was the celery vase. During the 19th century, middle-class households sought to establish their position in the community in a variety of ways. Perhaps the greatest indicator of one’s status was offered in the dining room. By serving a variety of exotic foods, a hostess could solidify her husband’s situation as “having arrived” at a high rung on the social ladder.
Celery became one of these exotic foods important to the class-conscious consumer. This vegetable, like other foods considered elegant at the time, was important enough to require its own serving dish. Glass and silver celery vases (sometimes called celery stands) allowed for prominent presentation on the table. With leafy ends protruding, celery could be offered from a tall glass or silver vase akin to a flower vase, providing ease of serving and the height needed to give variety to the vast array of cuisine. 1
Celery as a food dates back as far as the 16th century when it was used for flavoring. During the next century, evidence indicates that the stalks were eaten, often dipped in oil. By the 19th century, the vegetable had grown in popularity, in part because of its reputation as a hothouse plant.
A member of the parsley family and native to Europe and Asia, celery requires blanching, or mounding rich, moist soil around the stalk to exclude light. Moreover, celery needs a long growing season with cool temperatures. Normally maturing several months after planting, celery is among the most expensive vegetables to produce even today.
Low baskets offered another, though less popular, means of presenting the vegetable for the table. Celery vases outsold baskets by a ratio, of 17 to 1, according to the catalogues of silver manufactures. Popular during the Victorian decades of the 1860s and 1870s, sales of these stands increased into the 1890s, when celery “boats” to “yachts” were listed in manufactures’ catalogues.
At the turn of the 20th century, celery stands or vases had disappeared from the tabletop landscape because of the development of a commercial process for growing the vegetable. Cultivating celery had been very labor-intensive, because it required blanching to preserve the white hue of the stalks, as well as the slightly sweet flavor. This new commercial process allowed for easier growing, thereby making the vegetable more available. Increased availability meant less cost, making it ordinary and no longer suitable for the status seekers of the middle-class.
With celery out of fashion, eager consumers sought other less common foods as status indicators and celery vases were no longer needed. Today, these vases appear in shops sometimes listed as “spooners” or simply as flower vases, but the knowing dealer and collector will recognize them for what they are: an indicator of the originality of the 19th-century manufacturers’ eager to find his niche in the fashionable, yet faddish, world of cuisine.
1. Susan Williams, “Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feast: Dining in Victorian America” (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996). 111.
— Originally published in the American Antiquities Journal
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