It has been some weeks since I updated my Edible Plants series. I am currently listening to the book Farm City: An Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter. She lives in Oakland, CA and is able to construct a fantastic urban garden, well ultimately farmstead really, on an abandoned lot next to her house – she calls it her “squat garden.” The writing is humorous and she manages to raise critical issues surrounding the food movement as it pertains to urban people within the larger context of history, industrial agriculture, and the myriad of “fad” or “trendy” takes on how we ought to feed ourselves without a soap box or liturgical ranting style that I felt Gabrielle Hamilton’s writing tended to smack of. I appreciate the humility and genuine nature of her style where she seems to be merely chronicling her own journey and process through making her vision a reality, and making sense of why she is doing it.
This pertains to the Edible Plant Series because one of the cool things I learned from this book (which is littered with facts about the origins of vegetables, the history of animal husbandry, the history and modern place for the “back to the earth” movement), is that carrots are native to Afghanistan! I definitely never would have come up with that if you asked me where I thought they started off there. Another tip towards my discussing carrots today is that my mom ran into our farmer, Dennis, who provides our CSA share. His farm is called Blue Dog Greens (make sure to check out his website, and if you live in the area, consider getting veggies from him – they are SO good!) form which we will begin receiving produce as of June 1! He said that he has had a wonderful growing season, and that his carrots are going to be fantastic. And, if the carrots I have had from him in the past don’t live up to these, we are going to be in for a real treat – they are SO GOOD.
Carrots began their culinary journey in Asia around 5,000 years ago. They did not start out orange! They were typically purple, but other colors existed as well. Bitter in nature, they were first used medicinally, but, as with most plants that are domesticated, the roots became larger and sweeter with time. Apparently, they were considere to be an aphrodisiac 😉
Greeks hated carrots, but the Romans loved them because their culture tended to be more accepting of robust flavors. Eating them cooked and raw, the early Roman cookbook Apicius even includes them in its pages. In the 12th century AD, Moors brought the roots to continental Europe where they spread to Great Britain and were cultivated there before coming to the New World. The orange color has resulted from selective breeding, and tended to be more appealing to the eye. This resulted in carrots becoming widely accepted as something for people to eat.
The Dutch are actually responsible for this change from purple to orange where they were used New World mutant seeds to steer the carrot towards sweetness rather than its typically bitter nature. Yellow carrots (the mutants) were crossed with ye old purple ones, and resulted in orange carrots! They are rumoured to have been adopted by The House of Orange under William I as the national vegetable in honor of the fight for independence from Spain.
Carrots are, thus, delineated into two categories – the original and bitter Eastern variety, and the new Western, under which there are a few general classifications.
- Chantenay carrots are typically shorter and wider with a very thick top and blunt bottom. They tend to be used in canned goods or other processed and pre cooked creations.
- Danvers are conical and have a well defined tip. They are slightly longer than the Chantenay type and can tolerate heavier soils. Developed in the 19th century in Danvers, MA, they are now used for the most part in pureed baby food you buy at the grocery store.
- Imperator carrots are the kind we usually see sold in bags at the store. They are, on average, the third longest of the carrot varietals.
- Nantes are the shortest and are much sweeter than any other type.
They are related to parsnips, best grown in sandy soil and cooler temperatures. They flower after their second year of cultivation – they are biennials. Adding a sweet flavor to dishes when cooked, they are often used in stocks, soups, braises, and other things that are cooked slow and steady. As a side, they are fantastic if you steam or boil them and toss with butter or oil and some chopped herbs, salt and pepper. Carrots are a mainstay of cooking, appearing in the tried and true mirepoix – the base for so many traditional dishes in European cuisine – consisting of celery, carrots, and onion.
We all know carrots are supposedly great for the eyes. If you are focused on Beta Carotene, make sure to cook them for maximum benefits, as only 3% of beta carotene is released during digestion when consumed raw, and jumps to 39% when cooked! Beta Carotene is metabolized into Vitamin A. Eating too many will actually turn your skin orange – this is not a myth. Vitamin A is responsible for improving eyesight (a lack of it actually will negatively affect your night vision). During WWII in England pilots were encouraged to eat more carrots in order to improve their ability to shoot at enemy targets. Carrots are also known to help with improving digestion, fighting off intestinal parasites, and mitigating both tonsillitis and constipation.
Something else I would love to share with you is this piece I listened to earlier today on NPR’s show Being. They show’s host interviews chef Dan Barber in front of a live audience. He is a chef at the Blue Hill Farm restaurants in New York – they have two locations: one on Manhattan and another in the Hudson Valley on a farm. He is a visionary and smart person who happens to also be quite funny. I appreciate his take on food, and I like this particular piece as it focuses on ethical issues surrounding the local food movement. I felt like it was particularly timely given that I am listening to the previously mentioned book! As Susan and my Mom would say, a case of Mexican Wrestler Syndrome 🙂 I encourage you guys to listen to it and check out the restaurants when you’re on the East Coast. For good measure, I will toss out this recipe for his scrambled eggs recipe that I found!
Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm