by Janet Spencer
The word “carrot” comes from the Greek word “karoton” meaning “horn” referring to the vegetable’s horn-like shape. Come along with Tidbits as we munch carrots!
• The carrot is a biennial plant, taking two growing seasons to complete its life cycle. The roots go down the first year, and easily survive the winter underground, while the ferny leaves flourish in the summer and die in the fall. The second season, the feathery leaves produce white flowers, which produce seeds. Commercial growers harvest carrots after the first season as soon as the roots are big enough to take to market. Only a small number of carrots are allowed to go to seed the following year. The seeds are tiny: it takes 2,000 to fill a teaspoon. Although carrot roots regenerate if planted in soil or kept in water, virtually all commercial carrot crops are grown from seed.
• Because carrot seeds are so tiny, they are very vulnerable when first planted and seedlings will die if they dry out even once. However, after the plant has reached maturity, it does well in dry conditions. Carrots prefers loose, sandy soil that is deeply tilled and not well fertilized. These conditions force the carrot roots to grow deeper.
• If the root encounters a blockage, it twists, resulting in strange shapes. If the bed is deeply mulched, carrots can remain in the ground over winter. Their sugar content increases during dormancy.
• The carrot originated in what is now Iran and Afghanistan. The plant is closely related to Queen Anne’s Lace. By the 8th century, the Moors were growing carrots in Spain and by the 11th century carrots were common throughout Asia, India, and Europe. At that time, carrots were every color except orange: purple, black, white, red, and yellow.
• In the 1600s, a common strain of carrot that was purple on the outside and orange on the inside mutated, becoming orange all the way through. This genetic oddity also turned out to be sweeter in taste than other carrots. The Dutch, who first discovered this strange carrot, became the first to widely cultivate what is now our familiar orange carrot.
• There’s a place in France originally called “Aurengia” meaning “temple” because there was an altar there. It was Germanized to “Orenge” and then turned into “Orange” though it had nothing to do with either the fruit or the color. The town called Orange begat a royal bloodline called “The House of Orange” which begat “The Prince of Orange” who became King William III of England, known as William of Orange. He was instrumental in the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule in the 1600s. This was about the time the first orange-colored carrot appeared in the Netherlands, and some people claim that the reason the orange carrot became so popular so quickly was because it was considered a tribute to William of Orange.
• The first carrots arrived in America with the first pilgrims, who founded Jamestown.
• Americans weren’t fond of carrots until soldiers returned home from the World War I where they had contact with them.
• During World War II, the Allies made vast improvements in radar technology. At the same time, it was discovered that having an instrument panel lit with red light instead of white light resulted in improved night vision for pilots. These two innovations resulted in an increase in the rate at which pilots were able to shoot down German planes. The story goes that the British government spread propaganda about pilots being fed plentiful carrots which improved their vision, leading to the higher kill rate, because they didn’t want the Germans to find out about these improvements. That’s only part of the truth. During the war, the government encouraged citizens to grow their own food in “Victory Gardens” to help with the war effort. At the time, carrots were not a popular vegetable, in spite of being easy to grow and exceptionally nutritious. They were considered to be a “poor man’s vegetable.” The propaganda about heroic carrot-eating pilots saving London from the Nazis increased interest in growing carrots around the country. British carrot production during the war soared by 300%.
• The average fresh carrot yield per acre planted is approximately 34,000 lbs.
• Cumin, dill, anise, fennel, coriander, cilantro, and parsley, all of which are closely related to carrots, are cultivated for their seeds which are highly flavored, just as the seeds of carrots are. Carrots are also closely related to celery and parsnip.
• A single medium-sized carrot has 25 calories, with 86% coming from carbs, 9% from protein, and 5% from fat.
• Carrot juice is sometimes used to darken the color of cheese.
• Americans eat about 12 lbs (5.4 kg) of carrots per year. The average person eats about 10,866 carrots in their lifetime.
BABY CARROTS ARE BORN
• In 1985, Mike Yurosek was growing carrots at his mega-farm when his wife asked if he could invent pre-peeled carrots. At the time, about 40% of his crop went to waste because the carrots were misshapen and unmarketable. He had tried to sell them as livestock feed, but they turned beef fat orange. Why not cut the crooked carrots into small pieces the size of a thumb and market them as “baby” carrots?
• The first problem was that when the carrots were cut and polished, they turned white. A different “grit” was used for the polishing and that did the trick. Next was that the plastic bags would blow up like a balloon because the carrots were still alive and “breathing.” This was solved by running the bags through a machine that pricked them with a thumbtack. Now the issue was that the carrots would dry out, so a squirt of water was added before the bags were sealed.
• As soon as they entered the market in 1990, baby carrots were a hit. Carrot consumption doubled within the first year of their release. Today, 70% of carrots sold are baby carrots.
• Demand was so high it outstripped the supply of oddly shaped carrots. Yurosek developed a new strain that is long, straight, thin, and perfect for cutting into two-inch segments. The parts that are thinner than a thumb are turned into “carrotinis” and sold to schools for children to eat. The peels that are polished off are turned to carrot juice, with the residue added to animal feed. Carrot tops are composted. Yurosek’s carrot business is now one of the least wasteful vegetables,
• All parts of the carrot plants are edible, including the leaves (soups, garnish, salads, as pesto), flowers (salads), and pungent seeds (flavoring). Carrots were the first veggie to be commercially canned. Baby carrots that split apart are higher in sugar than intact baby carrots.