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Word of the Day: sla (lettuce)

If ASPERGE is the Queen of Vegetables, LOF (chicory) its Prince, KOMKOMMER (cucumber) its fool, AARDAPPEL (potato) its tragic knight, what then is SLA (lettuce)? Every Dutchman knows that poet Rutger Kopland (1934-2012) has the answer:


Jonge sla                                                                 Young lettuce

Alles kan ik verdragen,                                          Anything I can take,
het verdorren van bonen,                                      the withering of beans,
stervende bloemen, het hoekje                             the dying of flowers, the potatoes
aardappelen, kan ik met droge ogen                    being raised, I can watch
zien rooien, daar ben ik                                          with dry eyes, all this I’m
werkelijk hard in.                                                     really hardened to.

Maar jonge sla in september,                                But young lettuce in September,
net geplant, slap nog,                                             just planted, still limp
in vochtige bedjes, nee.                                         In damp little beds, no.

(From: ‘Alles op de fiets’, Amsterdam, 1970). (© translation: Ruud Hisgen)

What can be sadder than ‘Jonge SLA’ (young lettuce), just planted in autumn having no chance of survival in the cold wintery months? SLA is a very fragile vegetable. It looks okay when it’s freshly cut, but repugnantly limp and discoloured after a night outside the fridge.

If you would like to know what makes many Dutch people tick, read Rutger Kopland’s poetry. Many of his poems are accessible observations of moments and descriptions of Dutch landscapes. Thematically they deal with the flightiness of life and the absurdity of mortality. His poems are excellent material for students of Dutch because they are not extremely difficult. As you can see from the above poem, his style is colloquial.

Rutger Kopland was a pseudonym. His real name was Rudi van den Hoofdakker. He lived in the province of Groningen and he was a psychiatrist by profession. By the way, one of his marvellous poems can be read on a wall of Het Hofje van Schuddegeest in de Surinamestraat in The Hague.
(The text on the wall reads in my free translation: ‘You can lie down, my dearest, in the garden, / the empty spaces in the tall grass, I have / always wished to be that, an empty / space for someone, to continue to be.)

But let’s return to more vegetable matters. Question: what have SALARIS (salary) and SLA in common? The answer is ‘salt’. The Latin word for ‘salt’ is ‘sal’. In medieval times when salt was rare and extremely expensive, soldiers used to get an allowance for the purchase of salt. This allowance was called a ‘salarium’ in Latin and in Anglo-French ‘salarie’. In those days when there were no fridges people used to salt their meat and vegetables for longer preservation. The verb ‘to salt’ was ‘salare’ in Latin. ‘Herba salata’ were vegetables seasoned with brine. Dutch SALADE, German ‘Salat’, Swedish ‘salat’, Russian ‘salat’ all go back to Latin and French salted vegetables.

So to cut a long story short the vegetable SLA is a shortened form of the dish SALADE which is now mainly prepared with lettuce and cucumber, tomatoes and other plantish things.

If you think you understand where the word Caesar salad comes from, you’re absolutely wrong. Cesar Cardini was the restaurant owner in Tijuana, Mexico and he served the first Caesar salad in the roaring twenties.