We sat down for a Q&A with one of the most famous root vegetables out there.
By BCFA Special Correspondent Courtney Linder
Sure, the days feel shorter than ever, as the sun crests behind the hills in Eastern Pennsylvania at around 4:30 p.m. or so, but that doesn’t mean that your cooking has to become equally dreary. Really, the dark, cold nights are an incredible excuse to bust out the stockpot and whip up a hearty Irish-style beef stew with maple and stout, or a pile of roasted root vegetables, seasoned well and caramelized on a sheet pan in the oven. Maybe even a carrot tart with ricotta and feta will feel just indulgent enough.
One thing that these dishes all have in common: the humble carrot, which has a surprisingly rich history in the United States, particularly among Native American tribes in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest. Luckily, we had the chance to sit down with a local Doylestown carrot to ask her a bit about her family background, upbringing, and what she’s up to now. Our conversation follows.
Q: Not to be too forward, but how old are you?
A: Well…it’s slightly up for debate, but my friends at the World Carrot Museum in Cross Hills, England reckon that my family is a bit long in the tooth—I am a purple carrot, after all. Most accounts put my family as far back as the 900s, which means some of my ancestors, including my great-great-grandmother, could be over 1,100 years old! As for me in particular? I was just harvested about two weeks ago.
Q: Where are you from?
A: It’s most likely that I have Persian roots. My grandmother, also a purple carrot, grew up in Afghanistan in the 900s. Some of my family members are also believed to come from Turkey. By the 1100s, much of the carrot family had spread through the Middle East and North Africa to land in Spain. It was only here that we began to see white and orange cousins—previously, we were all purple and yellow, but the farming techniques in Europe yielded greater genetic diversity in our family by the 1600s.
Q: How did you get your name?
A: I didn’t always go by “carrot,” you know. Back in the 3rd century, the name “Karota” was used to describe my family of garden vegetables. You can thank the writings of Athenaeus, a Greek rhetorician, for that one. Oh, and Apicius Czclius mentioned us as Karota in his book on cookery back then, too. In Athenaeus’s work, he notes that the poet Diphilus described the carrot as “pungent, very nourishing, and fairly wholesome, with a tendency to loosening and windiness; not easy to digest, very diuretic, calculated to rouse sexual desire; hence by some it is called love-philtre.” I’ll take that as a back-handed compliment.
Q: Let’s talk about your orange cousins, when did they crop up?
A: That’s a good story, actually. My modern-day cousins tell me that their earliest orange ancestors only date back to about 400 years ago! Can you believe that? Basically two plant breeders in the Netherlands had a crazy idea to cross a yellow mutant carrot from Africa with a local red carrot. The idea was to honor the House of Orange, a dynasty that spearheaded the Netherlands’ revolt against Spain in the mid-sixteenth century. It was clearly a very successful move, considering that the orange ones get all the attention in the supermarket these days. Sigh.
Q: You bring up a good point, orange carrots certainly are the most popular. Do you know why it happened that way?
A: I suspect it has something to do with the way that the Dutch marketed their new House of Orange carrot. You see, the entrepreneurs in the Netherlands began pushing this designer vegetable, which they were calling “the long orange Dutch carrot,” outside of the country, selling them alongside other wares, like their world-renowned tulips. Over the next 200 years, these orange carrots grew to become the most common variety in the Western world.
Q: Okay, so defend purple carrots for us, since you are one. Why should we love purple carrots just as much, if not more, than their orange counterparts?
A: That’s easy. If it were not for a bit of patriotism on the part of the Dutch 400 years ago, perhaps the House of Orange could have been the House of Purple, and us darker carrots could have ruled the roost in supermarkets across the world (though admittedly, we do show up frequently in the produce section in Egypt, India, Japan, and China). Now as for the why: like most vegetables, the color of a carrot is an indicator for the amount of bionutrients contained therein. Us purple carrots have a high concentration of anthocyanins, which boost antioxidant activity in the body. That means that we have more nutritional value than our beta-carotene orange cousins—and I’ll never let them forget it.
Q: I’m pretty sure that you have other famous relatives, too, right? What can you tell me about them?
A: I’m glad you brought that up. Although I am clearly the best specimen from the Umbelliferae family, I’m not the only one. Some of my cousins include hemlock (but she’s a poisonous wench if you ask me), dill, anise, caraway, celery, cilantro, cumin, and even fennel, which I must admit I have a special place in my heart for. Parsnips are a little bit shy, but another favorite family member of mine. P.s. Your readers should also know that they can make pesto out of my beautiful carrot tops!
Robinson, Jo. Eating on the Wild Side. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013. Print.
Stay tuned for additional interviews with stars of the garden in upcoming newsletters!
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