We overlook some foods as just being ordinary, or even take them for granted, but nothing was more astonishing to me than the origin of carrots. Wild carrots from Western Asia and Europe initially had only a tiny, arid-tasting root. Eating the root was probably not popular, but they must have used them for something, as seeds have been found at prehistoric lake-dwellings between Germany and Switzerland. Perhaps they were grown for their aromatic leaves. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans apparently ate them. It appears that a 12-th century Arab writer, Ibn al-Awwam first described them as being juicy, tasty, purplish-red, coarse and with a flavor best dressed with oil and vinegar. However, carrots are more likely to have originated in Afghanistan and were found in all colors—black, white, red, and purple. Seeds have even been found in tombs of the Egyptians. An expanding Arabic trade supposedly brought them to Spain in the 11th century, and by the 14th century they were noted in recipes in France, the Netherlands, and Germany.
Early carrots were bitter but recognized for their nutrition, so their popularity grew. By the Middle Ages, they were noted for their sweetening characteristics in puddings. Incidentally, the Dutch were foremost in their cultivation of carrots, and their artists captured the first truly orange carrots in their 17th century paintings. That orange color is due to the presence of carotene. Orange carrots appeared in the Netherlands during the 1700s and were grown in tribute to the House of Orange. Selective breeding removed the bitterness, increased sweetness, and minimalized its wooden core. Like many vegetables, successive generations were developed to grow larger. However, it was quickly discovered that not every vegetable is better bigger. Carrots can turn “woody” and lose sweetness. They’re best harvested at 9-10 weeks after sowing.
In 1600 English settlers began cultivating carrots at Jamestown, Virginia. American Indians, who apparently had few sweets, were captivated by them. Escaping from early gardens, they began to grow wild and became known as Queen Annes Lace. It’s considered a weed. Despite its early introduction, carrots did not become popular in the U.S. until American GIs brought them home from World War I. The first Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book had only one recipe for stewing carrots in its 1916 edition. During WWII, the British were forced to rely on them for sweetening their foods since carrots contain large amounts of sugar. Incidentally, carrot cakes are even more popular in the U.K. today than ever.
Many of you may already know, but it was news to me, that those baby carrots that are so popular in the grocery store today did not grow that way. They are all made from larger carrots that are cut and sanded to shape. They were ‘invented’ in the 1980s. This creation has made them the single most popular root vegetable sold in the U.S.A. Parents fell in love with them, employing them as a healthy food choice for their kids. They are so easy to handle and dip into a multitude of things that kids of all ages have embraced them. Consequently, they have become a lunch box staple. How that came about is quite a story.
Grocery chains insisted on fresh carrots being a particular size. Those mis-shapen ones resulted in tons being thrown away because of their imperfections. Mike Yorusek, a California grower, tired of throwing away 80,000 pounds daily, invented baby carrots by using an industrial green bean cutter and a potato peeler. The bean cuter cut them into 2-inch lengths and the potato peeling machine, a machine which simply spins potatoes against sandpaper to remove their peelings, rounded the carrots to look like miniature ones – carrot waste was reduced by 30%. Unbelievably, grocery stores loved the prepackaged baby carrots. Carrot consumption jumped by 30% within a single year! Now that is a great sustainability success story. Today baby carrots are responsible for 50% of all fresh carrot sales (152 million tons) so, what many honestly believe is a cute little carrot, is actually a man-made creation. Truly, this is a remarkable discovery, but there is need for a word for caution: sanding removes a carrot’s protective skin subjecting it to a higher risk for food poisoning. Although washed in chlorine solution, storage conditions in supermarkets, or our own refrigerators, can often result in slimy carrots. Be sure you are purchasing a fresh bag, and don’t keep them too long in your refrigerator.
Texas A&M University has developed Maroon Carrots. I suppose this has something to do with their natural dislike of all things orange, or maybe just their obsession with all things maroon. They contain 40% more beta-carotene and contribute to healthier hair, eyes, and smoother skin. They are also rumored to be sweeter and juicer than conventional orange carrots, as well as being easier to chew. I do not, however, recommend them as substitutes for the carrots called for in this recipe. It is doubtful, that you will ever see these maroon carrots used to make baby carrots, or that they will overtake their traditional orange cousin in sales.
Before the baby carrot revolution, my mother cooked carrots quite frequently, but my dad never attempted to grow them in his garden. This recipe can be made with canned carrots if you desire to skip the fresh carrot preparation. I liked this dish because of the thick, creamy sauce. Always served hot, they were delicious, and a second helping was often enjoyed.
1 bunch of fresh carrots (about 1 lb.)
2 tbsp butter
½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 ¼ cups milk
Rinse, scrub, and slice carrots.
Bring to a boil in a small amount of water until tender, drain.
In a medium-sized skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat.
Stir in flour, salt, pepper, and sugar.
Cook approximately for 1 minute.
Gradually add milk, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and starts to boil.
Pour over cooked carrots and stir to coat.