"To take parsley away from the cook," wrote Louis Augustin Guillaume Bosc d'Antic about the end of the 18th century, "would make it almost impossible for him to exercise his art." Perhaps, but parsley takes up little space in the literature of food. One reason for this comparative neglect is that it is so ubiquitous and so widely known that it has become common-place. It does not even have the quality of another ingredient of which this is also true-salt, which at least makes its presence felt when it is absent.
Another reason why parsley has attracted little attention from food writers, or writers in general, is that although it is an almost universal seasoner (Pliny said that sauces and salads should never be without it), it seldom appears as a dish in its own right. Bartolomeo Scappi in 1570 gave a recipe for "parsley broth" (also called "Apostles' stew"), but it was really mutton stew, though abundantly seasoned with parsley. A similar misnomer exists today in Cornish "parsley pies."
Offhand, the only food I can think of in which parsley is the dominating ingredient today is a parsley herb sandwich, in which the herb may or may not be combined with cream cheese. This reproduces a common breakfast of the ancient Romans, a piece of bread made more interesting by the light peppery taste of parsley - or the stronger, sharper taste of Macedonian parsley, which, precisely because of its strength, was considered by some Romans as the best kind while others detested it.
The ancient Romans knew five kinds of parsley and so do we, although they are not necessarily the same five.
Rome was well placed to receive parsley, if, as we are usually told, it is a native of Sardinia. It could have been, but it would be safer to describe it as having originated in the Mediterranean basin. As far back as history goes, we find it growing wild in southern Europe from Spain to Macedonia in Lebanon, and in Algeria. I suspect that it has been attributed to Sardinia because it is on record that English gardeners imported a Sardinia strain of parsley in 1548.
Its arrival in France - northern France, at least - is sometimes misreported too. Catherine de Medici introduced certain Italian vegetables to France, and many modern writers have been adding various other foods to her luggage, apparently at random, including parsley. Yet Charlemagne had ordered it planted in all his domains about the year 800. It was also being grown in French monasteries at about this time.
The misreporting on the time when parsley arrived in different countries may have operated the other way around in the case of America. Verazzano said that he saw it on the coast of Massachusetts about 1524. Vigilant writer since have insisted that this could not have been so, since parsley is an Old World plant. The rectifiers were perhaps wrong. After all, there were Norsemen not far from Massachusetts, if not actually there. Consider Longfellow's "Skeleton in Armor," written of a find that occurred in Fall River, Mass., 500 years before Verazzano, to say nothing of the Basque fisherman who came from parsley country to the Great Banks off Newfoundland before Columbus. They went ashore on the mainland to cure their cod, where perhaps they let drop a parsley seed or two. The progeny easily could have migrated this far south in a couple of centuries.
I know of no written record of the presence of parsley in America before 1806, however, when both plain and curled varieties were being grown here. By 1828, there were three kinds; by 1881, four. But since parsley does not attract much attention from writers, the fact that it was not mentioned does not necessarily mean that it was not there.
Our five kinds of parsley today are the plain-leaved, the curly-leaved, the fern-leaved and the turnip-rooted. Of these, the plain-leaved is probably the original form. At least plants of this type sometimes appear mysteriously in the middle of fields of curly parsley, apparently throwbacks to their ancestor. It is tastier than the curly-leaved parsley, and is, therefore, extensively grown in Europe. It has almost disappeared commercially from the United States, however, where prettiness is preferred to tastiness (except in southern Louisiana, where the Creole cuisine preserves it). The same tendency is now making itself felt in Europe.
Curly parsley has shouldered its way in because of its decorative quality when used to garnish dishes, from which it is usually pushed aside uneaten. Most writers put it down as a fairly recent development, but this is only true if your idea of what is recent is liberal. Columella in 42 A.D. gave directions for cultivating curly as well as plain parsley and Palladius in 210 told how to develop the curly variety from the plain.
About 1812, French seed catalogues offered what was described as a new variety of parsley which, because of its much-segmented, very dark green leaves, was called fern-leaved parsley. Its novelty was questionable: Baunm had written of it in 1596. It does not seem to be much grown anywhere nowadays.
Celery-leaved parsley might be described as a recent discovery for much of the world. Until the end of the 19th century, it was pretty much a local phenomenon. It was then called Neapolitan parsley. Sturtevant wrote a little before the turn of the century that it was "scarely known outside of Naples."
It hadbeen introduced into France in 1823 but failed to gain favor, perhaps because its flavor was too strong or too coarse for French tastes. It is now being grown a little more extensively under the name of Italian parsley, which confuses the issue a trifle. This name is also often given to ordinary plain-leaved parsley. I am inclined to wonder whether Neapolitan parsley is not the descendant of the ancient Macedonian parsley, also called black parsley, not only because of the strength of its flavor but also because Pliny described Macedonian parsley, also called black parsley, as having thick white stalks that could be eaten, and so has Neapolitan parsley, whose stalks are sometimes blanched in growing, like celery.
Turnip-rooted parsley provides an exception to the rule given above, that this plant seasons other dishes but does not provide a main dish itself. This variety does, but does not ordinarily come to mind when one thinks of parsley, usually considered a leafy plant. The leaves of this variety can, indeed, be eaten. It is raised for its roots, however, which look like small parsley and taste like celeriac. It used to be known as Hamburg parsley, which suggested a German origin, but the Germans themselves called it Dutch parsley. It is probable that it was, indeed, developed in Holland. The territory where it found most favor was Central Europe, particularly Germany and Poland (Sweden adopted it a little later), and this is still where it is most eaten.