“If you think I am going to make
A sexual joke in this poem, you are mistaken.”
So says Robert Hass, in his playful poem, dryly titled “Poem With a Cucumber In It.” The poem contains etymological musings on “cumbersome” and “encumber,” musings on the Berkeley sky, memories of travel, and a rough recipe for cucumber salad with dill and yogurt.
Perhaps the most famous poem with a cucumber in it is “The Task,” published in 1775 by William Cowper. Like Hass’s, this poem contains something of a recipe: for growing a hothouse cucumber. Cowper meditates for pages on the challenges of growing this sun loving plant in the English winter. He describes the construction of the greenhouse, the creation of fertile soil out of a “rage of fermentation,” the coddling of seeds and sprouts, the fertilization which in winter requires that “assistant art/ then acts in nature’s office.”
The cucumber takes on social significance as well. It is the object in a meditation on two main topics of eighteenth century political economy: value (“when rare/ so coveted, else base and disesteemed—/ Food for the vulgar merely”) and labor (“To raise the prickly and green-coated goard/ So grateful to the palate […] is an art” requiring intensive, careful labor unappreciated and unacknowledged by the wealthy purchasers of winter cucumbers). Cowper advises “ye rich” to “grudge not the cost” because:
Ye little know the cares,
The vigilance, the labor and the skill
That day and night are exercised, and hang
Upon the ticklish balance of suspense,
That ye may garnish your profuse regales
With summer fruits brought forth by wintry suns.
Cowper’s socioeconomically-conscious advice might sound familiar to those of us who write and think and read about our current food culture: learn about how the foods you take for granted are grown; don’t take them for granted; consider the farmer’s labor; grow some food yourself; keep a compost heap; build a cold frame; consider the social and economic costs of unseasonal foods.
To read this eighteenth-century meditation on the economics, culture, and cultivation of cucumbers is to be reminded that our current “good food movement” exists in an historical context. Skepticism about and moral indignation toward the modernization of food—whether that means hothouse-cultivation, refrigeration, or genetic modification—is as old as modernity itself, and probably older. Praise for farmers and their ancient art—and injunctions to praise them—are as old as the art itself.