Some time during the 10th century in what is now Iran — but what was then Persia — the precursor to the modern-day carrot became a part of the human diet. It started off purple in color, and then eventually mutated and changed until it emerged as the bright orange carrot we know today. I know this because of research available on the web site of the World Carrot Museum. As best as I can tell, there is no way to visit the World Carrot Museum, which is a shame, because I would love to see it.
Carrots, to me, are the perfect combination of natural miracle and human ingenuity. Root vegetables, in general, are unlikely food sources. I am awed by the path they had to follow to make their way into our diets. At some point prior to their emergence in the diet of the 10th century Persians, someone had to discover them.
Someone had to walk past a frilly carrot frond waving gently above the ground and wonder about it. They had to wonder powerfully enough to reach down, grab that frond and pull, gently enough not to break it off of the root below, and pull the long purple root out of the ground.
Once they saw that root — dirty and strange — they had to have the vision to picture it as food. There would have been dirt to brush off it and — without the shiny metal peelers we have today — they would have had to break it open to see the bright, wet color inside. After all that, it would have to appeal to their taste. Could they smell it? Did someone lean in, press their noses to the warm dirt surrounding it, and inhale the faint sweetness? What did they think?
Did they lick it, right there, standing in a field or at the edge of a forest? Did they take a small nibble? How did they know it wasn’t poisonous?
Who was the brave one to eat it first?
The carrot history on the World Carrot Museum web site includes this sneaky clue:
“…what has puzzled historians is why it took so long for the modern cultivated, edible carrot to appear. The clue is that, although evidence of wild carrot seeds have been found in pre-historic cave dwellings and Greek and Roman records they were only used in medicinal applications and not for consumption of the root, as a food.”
It was, indeed, not used at first for the same purposes for which we use it now. It began as a source of something else, and emerged through bravery, curiosity, and international trade as a staple root vegetable. It started as a source for the medicinal seeds.
My obsession with carrots has a lot to do with the metaphor of discovery in my own life. I learned to cook as medicine — fuel for the child I was raising who struggled to find the right foods to grow her fragile body. I cooked for fat grams and protein grams, for full tummies and pounds and inches on my failure-to-thrive child. Then I cooked for her strange elimination diet, making my own discoveries. When it was all over, the skills I’d learned out of necessity were, finally, at my disposal for my own pleasure only.
I discovered that, after all that time, I finally enjoyed cooking. Despite the pressure I’d felt, the limitations I’d endured, the chain to the stove I felt was invisible but real — I liked cooking. I liked taking raw materials and turning them into something delicious.
It was meditative and spiritual. In all the years of restrictions, vegetables in particular were always available to us. I had a deep love for our farmer’s market, where opportunities for new flavors were abundant and all at my disposal. Every single vegetable had to be discovered by someone in history and deemed edible. Every one had to be cultivated from seed to fruit or, more miraculously, from seed to root. Every one had to be picked from a plant or pulled from the earth and transported to me, bright and glorious. I laid them out on my kitchen counter and thanked the entire universe for bringing them to me, to peel and chop and cook and eat, growing all of us.
Carrots are amazing, versatile vegetables. I put them shredded into salad, chopped into pot pies, sliced into some soups and pureed into others, shredded into cakes and muffins, and simply peeled and cut into strips for dipping in fresh homemade hummus. I pop the last bit of each one into my mouth, like the first person who ever ate a carrot, trusting and delighted.