How Carrots Won the Trojan War: Curious (But True) Stories of Common Vegetables
“Facts, figures, legends, dramas, quirky personalities, literary characters, gardening, and culinary history . . .”
At first blush, a history of vegetables might not sound like a compelling subject, but in her book, How Carrots Won the Trojan War: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables, author Rebecca Rupp’s succeeds in proving that premise wrong. The book is rich with arcane historic tidbits, nutritional information, medicinal uses, and cultivation customs for a wide selection of produce.
You can, of course, read this book cover to cover with great pleasure, but it also lends itself to random dipping. Each chapter focuses on a different vegetable family. Choose the chapter that features the vegetable of interest and indulge in the fun of gleaning information from the myriad stories about it.
You’ll find a wide selection of vegetables ranging from asparagus to zucchini (it makes an appearance in the pumpkin chapter which encompasses pumpkins as well as other members of the squash family), including radishes, eggplant, beets, and others.
Each chapter heading provides a brief, enticing outline of what you’ll encounter. For example, the title of Chapter Four is, “In Which Cabbage Confounds Diogenes Plus Robert Burton’s Black Vapours, Samuel Pepys’s Dismal Dinner, Captain Cook’s Sauerkraut, A Roman Broccoli Binge, and the Vegetable Variation of Johann Sebastian Bach.”
Among the mélange of fascinating fact morsels you’ll learn is that scholars believe Boston baked beans is a dish introduced to the Pilgrims by the local Narragansett, Penobscot, and Iroquois Indians. The Indians placed the beans in an earthenware pot with venison, bear fat, and maple syrup then cooked them overnight in pits lined with hot stones. In addition to its nutritional and tasty properties, the dish suited the Pilgrims who were prohibited from cooking on the Sabbath. Over time the dish was modified. Molasses replaced maple syrup, and salt pork substituted for the venison and bear fat. Beantown’s signature dish became an established institution.
The Europeans’ first encounter with the wondrous potato was in the 16th century when the Spanish explorers were looking for gold in South America. In 1537, Juan de Castellanos described potatoes as, “white and purple and yellow, floury roots of good flavor, a delicacy to the Indians and a dainty dish even for Spaniards.”
In the early 1600s, the Dutch introduced potatoes to Japan, but it wasn’t until 1854 before the Japanese used them for anything but cattle fodder. It was Commodore Perry who talked the Emperor into tasting one, convincing him it was fit for human as well as bovine consumption.
The Japanese were not alone in their potato prejudices. In the 18th century, Russian peasants spurned potatoes as “the Devil’s apples.” Apprentices in colonial America believed eating potatoes would shorten their lives, and as late as the mid 1800s, many thought potatoes were fit only for livestock. A Farmer’s Manual of the time recommends growing them near hog pens to make feeding the pigs more convenient.
Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, was a vegetarian. He deemed cows to be, “the crudest machine in the world.” He promoted soybeans in lieu of beef and oatmeal crackers as a chicken substitute. He adored carrots, which he believed attributed to longevity. When he learned that the Italian painter Titian lived to be 99, Ford wanted to know if he ate a lot of carrots.
To honor his carrot preference, Ford was once invited to a 12-course, all-carrot dinner. The menu began with carrot soup followed by dishes such as carrot mousse, carrot salad, pickled carrots, carrots au gratin, carrot loaf, and carrot ice cream accompanied by glass after glass of carrot juice. It is likely the guests’ skin took on a pale orange hue due to the excessive consumption of carotene, the pigment that colors carrots. Known as carotenemia or carotenosis, the orange skin condition is harmless, and disappears when fewer carrots are consumed.
Henry Ford’s carrot banquet had historic precedence. Caligula, the sadistic, sexually perverse Roman emperor who ruled from 37 ACE to 41 ACE, believed carrots promoted sexual desires. He is reputed to have fed the entire Roman Senate a feast of carrots in the hopes that the meal would trigger an orgy. His faith in the aphrodisiac properties of carrots was widely accepted at the time. Roman soldiers would feed carrot broth to female captives in the hopes of stimulating their libidos.
And what about the Trojan War? According to legend, Agamemnon provided carrots to his armed soldiers hidden inside the Trojan Horse “to bind their bowels.” It’s an odd choice for anyone with loose bowels that need binding since carrots are high in fiber.
Facts, figures, legends, dramas, quirky personalities, literary characters, gardening, and culinary history are all to be found in How Carrots Won the Trojan War: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables.