Carrots: The Mystery of Your Favorite Snack
Have I mentioned that my mother is a liar? She prefers “teller of tall tales,” and she often adds an element of truth to the tale, making it a story easier to swallow as unlikely-but-true. So when she told the tale of a new mom who brought her beautiful but orange baby back to the hospital, only to be told to cut back on the baby’s whipped carrot diet, I believed her. She was, after all, an RN in the maternity ward.
Years later, I’ve begun to question almost everything my mother told me. For instance: That music truck? IT SELLS ICE CREAM. But, after coming across a beautiful bunch of carrots fresh from the dirt at an outdoor market in Paris, I decided it time to learn more about the root. And in doing so, I learned that my mother was, for once, not weaving her words into a tale, but that baby was being fed too much beta-carotene. And, according to Rebecca Rupp, author of “How Carrots Won the Trojan War,” “raw carrots release only about 3 percent of their total beta-carotene to the human digestive system. In boiled carrots, where the cooking acts to break down the root’s thick cell walls, up to 40 percent is released; and blended or juiced, carrots release up to 90 percent.”
And if you’re thinking grandma might have lied to you about eating carrots so you could see in the dark, she did. But there’s truth in the need for vitamin A, which carrots are steeped in, for healthy eyes: “Vitamin A … is perhaps best known for its effect on eyesight. In the retina of the eye, vitamin A binds to a protein (opsin) in the rod cells to form the visual pigment rhodopsin, which allows us to see — more or less — in the dark. In fact, the first hint of vitamin A deficiency is impaired dark adaptation (‘night blindness’), and a severe or prolonged lack of vitamin A can lead to permanent blindness.” (Rebecca Rupp, “How Carrots Won the Trojan War: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables”)
I’m sorry. You don’t care about juicing vs. cooking or night vision, you want to know how carrots won the Trojan War? According to Rebecca Rupp as well as the World Carrot Museum, carrots originated in what is present day Afghanistan 5000 years ago, purple, “scrawny, highly branched, and unpromising, these wine-colored roots belonged, like their plump cultivated descendants, to the Apiaceae family.” And those “primitive purple, violet, red, and black carrots owed their color to anthocyanin, a pigment that dominated the carrot world until approximately the sixteenth century, when a pale yellow anthocyanin-less mutation appeared in western Europe. It thus must have been an anthocyanin-laced purplish carrot that Agamemnon’s soldiers legendarily munched (presumably quietly) inside the Trojan Horse ‘to bind their bowels,’ and that Greeks on the home front used to concoct an aphrodisiacal potion or philtron. Like any vegetable even vaguely resembling a penis, the carrot was thought to be a passion promoter.” (Rupp)
I know. I’m never going to be able to eat a carrot the same way again. But we love them, raw, cooked, juiced: Americans consume about twelve pounds of carrots a year (up from a mere four annual pounds in 1975). After making their way to Europe in the 12th century, and being honed into the sweet, orange snack we chomp on today by the Dutch, carrots made their way to America with the first settlers. According to Rupp, they were planted between tobacco fields in Jamestown, and Jefferson grew carrots in several colors at Monticello.
For a twist, add the leafy-topped veggie to your bridal bouquet or boutonniere, their lacy, leafy tops were the original inspiration for Queen’s Anne Lace, descended, we read in Rupp’s history, from ex-cultivated escapees. The Queen of these lacy flowers is said to be Anne of Denmark, wife of England’s James I and an expert with the needle and thread. “Queen Anne challenged her ladies-in-waiting to make a piece of lace as fine as the flower of the wild carrot. The Queen herself, not surprisingly, won hands down, and the flower was rechristened in her name. Less romantically, it is known as bird’s nest or devil’s plague.” (For the sake of the future of your wedded bliss, I’d call it Queen Anne’s Lace, not devil’s plague.)
And? While we’re not going to be able to take a field trip to the World Carrot Museum, you can visit it online, and get your carrot facts fix. You can plan that field trip to a carrot festival near you, like the one in Holtville, California, a town of 6005 folk that calls itself the Carrot Capital of the World. The festivities kick off this Friday, Jan 31st, when they crown their Carrot Festival Queen and her court. And if you want to rival the small town’s crop, check out The Old Farmer’s Almanac guide to grow your own.
(Photo credit: Carrots in Color from Mixed Greens Blog, Paris Market, Rebecca Snavely)