One afternoon in the Library of Virginia Manuscripts Room, Reference Archivist Cara Griggs asked, “Why are celery and olives on all of these menus?” My reply came as a dry and simple, “I have no idea.” As always, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to delve into the quandary (rabbit hole, if you will): “Why celery and olives?”
Cara’s menu question arose while studying some archived boxes of the Records of the World War I History Commission, Virginia Camps and Cantonments, Camp Lee, 1917 to 1919. Within each folder, there were numerous commemorative dinner menus including rosters of those who served in World War I. Each menu specifically lists olives and celery as hors d’oeuvres. Why?
As it turns out, celery grew well in the dark, moist dirt of the trench bottoms during World War I. According to a 2014 article by Kate Chisolm in The Spectator, soldiers were often found “in the trenches carrying watering cans along the duckboards to water their improvised gardens.” It only stands to reason that celery would be on the menu for a World War I commemoratory dinner. Olives, on the other hand, were thought of as an ancient exotic food from the Mediterranean, rather than an “everyday’’ food. In other words, olives were seen as an upper-crust party food meant to impress.
Furthering my research into this bizarre project, I soon discovered that for nearly a century these two foods were absolute must-haves on every traditional menu. Celery and olives. Who knew?
From the late 1800s until the 1960s, these two foods were a necessity on traditional holiday and celebratory tables in homes and businesses across America, including Virginia, before the always-classic peas and carrots took over. The wealthy sometimes served celery as the centerpiece of their meals in intricate, tall, tulip-shaped glasses designed to display the vegetable. In Virginia, the Richmond Light Infantry Blues held a dinner in honor of Col. John B. Hoge on 14 December 1859. The menu notes “boiled celery” and “stuffed olives” as part of the bill of fare. At the time raw foods were still considered unhealthy to consume.
Into the turn of the century, as trains began transporting vegetables and fruits from warmer climates, celery became more readily available to markets in Virginia and beyond. Olives came onto the scene in the late 1880s and 1890s as California became a primary grower, reducing the need to import from European markets. Thus, the two foods became easier to acquire around the same time. As evidenced in many of the Virginia newspaper grocery advertisements studied, I also determined that these two staples were relatively inexpensive foods. Celery and olives became table staples, and serving them raw was considered a delicacy for any event.
Other evidence from Virginia newspapers supports the popularity of these two unlikely-paired veggies. On 25 November 1900, the Richmond Times ran a full-page feature entitled, “Thanksgiving 1900: Menus for the Feast Day of the Year.” The article proposes trimming the table with sample menus ranging from the “very inexpensive” to the “very elaborate,” each menu including celery, olives, or both. In November of 1912, Mrs. Lydia Spofford submitted a menu to the Alexandria Gazette for a contest and in turn won herself a turkey as the paper named it “The Best Thanksgiving Menu.” In it, Mrs. Spofford included olives; however, she omitted the celery. Interestingly enough, many of the other submissions to the contest included the classic pairing, some even spicing up the celery as a soup. The Norfolk Post from 23 September 1921 published an article by Sister Mary, entitled “Give Ghost Supper.” The article provides instruction on how to throw a “Halloween frolic,” complete with a menu of celery and olives, along with other dinner items.
It seems as though celery without olives was inconceivable at the turn of the century, and on into the 1960s. The 1970s and 1980s rolled in the ever-popular “ants on a log” and martinis topped with olives. For nearly a century celery and olives were the peas and carrots, the peanut butter and jelly, the pepperoni and cheese of their day. Gone now is this pair from our tables, only to be replaced by hummus and carrot sticks, crackers and cheese, and the go-to party mix. So I ask you now, what is on your table?
-Amanda Morrell, Reference Archivist