Tomatoes garner all the attention as the idolized epitome of summer vegetables, but cucumbers deserve some of the glory. As with tomatoes, the garden-fresh versions are far and away more flavorful than the grocery-store standard.
“When people bite into their first homegrown heirloom tomato, they have a wakeup call,” says Tom Stearns, founder and head seedsman for High Mowing Organic Seeds in Vermont. “It’s the same for cucumbers.”
Cucumbers have a long history of cultivation—and not all of it as a beloved vegetable. They were first grown as a crop in India. Although similar cucurbits were enjoyed as far back as 2400 b.c. in Greece and Egypt, cucumbers didn’t reach the Mediterranean or European regions until the 13th century during the Mongolian conquests. They were not widely accepted, probably because varieties at the time were bitter, prickly, and prone to cause gas. In England, cucumbers were dubbed “cowcumbers” and fed to livestock. The renowned 18th-century English linguist and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson mocked the vegetable’s palatability, remarking that “a cucumber should be well-sliced, and dressed with pepper and
vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.”
But cucumbers have improved since then, and gardeners have become more adept at growing and harvesting them to avoid their becoming tough, seedy, or bitter. Today, cucumbers are acknowledged as a summertime treat. When the garden greens of spring succumb to summer heat, cucumbers become the salad staple.