Serious Reads: How Carrots Won the Trojan War, by Rebecca Rupp
If the weather keeps up its freakish behavior, I may have to think about planting my summer garden a month early this year. Already I've begun flipping through ragged seed catalogs, marking pages with particularly delicious-sounding varieties that can stand up to summer's heat and my occasionally neglectful green thumb. But after reading How Carrots Won the Trojan War: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables I certainly have a few more colorful tales about my crops than I did before. Author Rebecca Rupp shares somewhat random but interesting collections of tidbits about everything from asparagus to eggplant to peas. Your garden variety vegetables just got a little more exciting.
The book is organized into twenty chapters, each highlighting a different vegetable (and one dedicated to melons). Information about the vegetables generally spans from the 1800s to the present, and is primarily sourced from diaries and books written throughout the years. Some of the various uses for vegetables are surprising—corn liquors, primarily whiskey, were popular as early as the 1600s. The "milky juice" that oozes from the stems of cut lettuce is actually a form of latex, and can be used (in large enough quantities) to make "the occasional rubber band." And how did carrots win the Trojan War? It's rumored that soldiers snacked on purple carrots to "bind their bowels" as they waited for their opportunity to strike.
Another comical collection of facts pertains to common vegetable-containing phrases. Apparently "lettuce" has been a euphemism for money since 1929 (it's green...get it?). And "she knows her onions" is apparently another way of saying that someone is knowledgeable and savvy. I was also surprised by how each vegetable seemed to have a (or many) legend associated with it. It seems that the more ubiquitous a plant, the more mystical it becomes to its cultivators.
Each chapter starts with a quote from a famous individual which pertains to the vegetable in the following chapter. I found the Radish quote particularly meaningful. E.B. White once wrote, "Our vegetable garden is coming along well, with radishes and beans up, and we are less worried about the revolution than we used to be." Gardens, and their ultimate harvest of delicious, nutritious food, are comforting. They ground us in the present, and make us thankful for what a season's worth of hard labor can bring. The quote gives this book, and the investigation of garden vegetables, a deeper meaning.
While entertaining and chock-full of tidbits to amuse party guests, this book is a little bit scattered. It provides many small details about the origins, uses, and myths about each vegetable. But these stories are often non-chronological, which makes following the history of the plant difficult. The book's illustrations are beautiful, and a few facts will stick with me. But by and large, How Carrots Won the Trojan War is not really as investigatory as the title makes it seem.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.