Rebecca Rupp’s HOW CARROTS WON THE TROJAN WAR: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables is a fun, fast read that brings up many interesting anecdotes about vegetables. From asparagus being thought of in medieval and Renaissance times as “sex food” to the title anecdote about the Greek warriors who, historically speaking, were said to have consumed many carrots beforehand in order to not have to eliminate while being stuck in the Trojan Horse for hours or days before they were turned loose, there are many intriguing facts here to pique your interest.
My favorite chapter was the twentieth chapter, which is about turnips and rutabagas. Rupp points out on p. 349 that the turnip has fallen on hard times, as it
. . . comes in dead last on the National Gardening Association’s list of most popular American garden vegetables, and a lot of seed catalogs leap insouciantly from tomatoes to watermelons without a turnipward glance.
Yet in the sixteenth century, turnips were often carved into fantastic shapes, suitable for the finest dinner parties. And the Romans ate them, though mostly the peasants did as turnips, then and now, have mostly been seen as a form of cheap, palatable food that would help fill you up without making you go broke in the process.
And turnips have been a staple of literary tales since the fourteenth century; as Rupp says on p. 345:
The Grimm Brothers’ tale “The Turnip,” for example, hearkens back to a trio of medieval Latin poems, the gist of which is deserved comeuppance. A poor but honest farmer brings an enormous turnip as a gift to the king, and receives a purse of gold as a reward. The farmer’s wealthy neighbor (or, occasionally, half-brother) then decides to give the king a horse, hoping for an even bigger and better reward. Instead, he gets the turnip.
Who can resist such anecdotes about the humble turnip? (Surely not me.)
Other interesting facts brought up by HOW CARROTS WON THE TROJAN WAR include:
- Most Romans ate beans, and had all sorts of interesting recipes for them.
- While beets aren’t very popular in contemporary US of A, they’ve been grown as a source of sugar since 1801 (with the first place known to have grown them for this purpose being Kunern, Silesia, within the Kingdom of Prussia).
- The ancient Greeks ate melons.
- Winston Churchill once said that “All the essentials of life” boil down to four: hot baths, cold champagne, old brandy, and new peas.
- Henry Ford was obsessed with carrots and once dined on a twelve-course all-carrot meal.
This is a lively, fun book that discusses the nutritional value of our favorite veggies along with common ways they’ve been prepared, historically, along with the ways we eat them today. Along the way, Rupp also discusses the various types of veggies and how they propagate, whether any of the historical versions of melons and cucumbers and tomatoes, etc., are still alive today in the wild, and dispenses for once and for all the whole “is the tomato a fruit, or a vegetable?” (Biologically, the tomato is a fruit. But we use it like a vegetable and it’s often been taxed as a vegetable. Which is why Rupp included it in this book.)
So if you want a great read that’ll educate you on the one hand while making you laugh on the other (as some of the anecdotes Rupp includes are quite amusing), you should immediately grab HOW CARROTS WON THE TROJAN WAR as it’s easily the best book, bar none, I’ve ever read about vegetables.
So what are you waiting for? Go read this book today!
— reviewed by Barb