Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Carrots Won The Trojan War?

From the cover (by Gilbert Ford)
My last post was about carrots, and their long history as part of Western cuisine. Shortly after I wrote that post, I spied the following book in a local bookstore:
Rupp, Rebecca.  How Carrots Won The Trojan War: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables. Storey Publishing 2011.
Actually, what caught my eye first was the cover art, which features a row of carrots, tastefully outfitted  as ancient Greek warriors with toothpick-like spears and bushy-crested helmets.  I've scanned one of the carrot warriors to give the militantly carroty flavor of the cover.

Ms. Rupp's book consists of a series of chapters, each featuring a different vegetable. Each chapter has a faux-Victorian-epic style title which effectively summarizes the most interesting tidbits of information therein. The carrot chapter, for example, is titled, "In Which Carrots Win The Trojan War, plus A Badly Behaved Rabbit, Henry Ford's Food Fetish, A Dose Of Devil's Porridge, The Amazing Career of Cat's-Eye Cunningham, and A Royal Embroidery Contest."

Each chapter gives a brief history of the vegetable's cultivation and use by mankind, a clear description of the vegetable's scientific name and salient chemical properties, and choice anecdotes about how the vegetable was historically received. The best part of these vignettes is the author's lucid  and witty style.  Her description of Henry Ford's carrot "fetish" is both an interesting piece of historic trivia and gives a good idea of the book's overall style:
Ford was anti-milk ("the cow is the crudest machine in the world") and anti-meat (he promoted soybeans in lieu of beef and oatmeal crackers as a substitute for chicken), but he was devoted to the carrot which, he was convinced, held the secret to longevity. At one point he was the guest of honor at a twelve-course all-carrot dinner, which began with carrot soup and continued through carrot mousse, carrot salad, pickled carrots, and carrot ice cream, all accompanied by glass after glass of carrot juice.
One story holds that Ford became interested in the painter Titian when his son Edsel donated a Titian painting ("Judith and the Head of Holofernes") to the Detroit Institute of Arts.  It wasn't the artist's work that interested him; it was the fact that Titian had reportedly lived to be ninety-nine. He wanted to know if Titian ate carrots. (Page 85)
If you yearn to know how carrots "won the Trojan War", that piece of information is blithely tucked into a sentence on page 87. But the book features many more vegetables than carrots; it includes, among others, potatoes (baffled the Conquistadors), cabbage, (confounded Diogenes) onion (offended Don Quixote), melons (undermined Mark Twain's morals), beets, (made Victorian belles blush) and turnips (made a viscount famous).

Ms. Rupp's book is a surprisingly readable collection of fascinating facts.  It includes a lengthy list of sources at the end, which the student of vegetable lore (or the general reader who's wondering whether his or her leg has been repeatedly pulled) may consult for further information, though based on my knowledge I believe the book to be mostly accurate, if unorthodox, in its reporting of facts.  I recommend the book highly to anyone interested in learning more about vegetables in Western cuisine who's been looking for a good place to start reading about them.


  1. Not fair. Just how did carrots win the Trojan War? I googled to find out.

  2. Supposedly, the Greek warriors inside the Trojan Horse nibbled carrots to "bind their bowels" so that they wouldn't have to leave the horse to perform bathroom functions before the moment came to leap out and attack the Trojans. I suspect this tidbit is one of the more dubious (i.e., least likely to be true) facts in the book.