Back then, it was a very different celery. Native to the Mediterranean and Middle East, wild celery has thin stalks and a bitter flavor. It was only later that farmers bred celery to have sturdy ribs and a sweeter profile. Its strong smell and dark color struck ancient Greeks as positively chthonic: that is, associated with the Underworld and death.
As a result, celery became an essential part of burials. In ancient Greece, celery covered graves, and the dead were often crowned with it. We know this, writes classicist Robert Garland, because the first-century Greek writer Plutarch referred to celery as the most common plant used for the purpose. Historians have floated various theories as to why the dead needed to be garlanded. Perhaps they had faced life with courage, and deserved to be buried as heroes. Garland rejects this in favor of another theory: that the dead were given heroic crowns “to add dignity and lustre to the proceedings.” Other writers, such as the Roman Pliny the Elder, considered celery off-limits as an everyday food, since it was prominent at funeral banquets.
Wow! Who would’ve thunk? Now I have an elevated level of respect for the unfortunate celery stem that swims in my next Bloody Mary. Here’s to life, death, and to celery 🌱