Over the past year and more, we’ve all experienced limbo in one form or another: Lock downs, restrictions, cancellations of events or flights or holidays or plans to meet up with friends, and the uncertainty of how long it will all last. Then there is the feeling of limbo that comes with my personal situation of waiting for the cascade of appointments for my husband’s chemo to begin; we had a set-back last week with a bacterial infection and a week’s hospitalization, so we’ll just have to wait and see if he can keep the appointments already made or not. Limbo. Waiting to find out if he can be brought home tomorrow. Limbo.
My writing, both in the forms of this blog and of my manuscript, have both been sucked into the state of limbo as well, as I’ve spent most of the past few weeks, and more intensively the past three days, on the phone with people who’ve asked how we’re doing, or answering messages on my phone or social media. Sometimes I feel like my manuscript is calling for me to work on it, and I’m trying to reach it while wading toward it waist-deep in a thick sludge of other priorities – it’s been just out of reach for days, because by the time I actually reach it, I have no energy left.
As I was thinking about those limbo moments, I actually started wondering just where the limbo dance comes from, historically; I remember doing it as a child – the local indoor skating rink played limbo every night. So, here’s a brief low-down on the low-down dance:
The origins are vague, as is the etymology of the name: Starting in late-1800s Trinidad, the name might have come from the Jamaican English “limba“, i.e. limber. Interestingly, the game is used in Africa as a funeral game, and there may be a connection between the two regions through the slave trade which brought Africans to the Jamaican islands, as it is also a popular “dance” for wakes in Trinidad. The rules are simple: a person passes under a bar, face-up, with the only body part allowed to touch the ground being the feet. The game is considered the unofficial national game of Trinidad and Tobago, it only began to gain popularity beyond the region in the 1950s; it was adopted in the mid-1950s as a form of physical exercise for American military troops. It was often attempted to a rhythmic song, and one of the most popular was the Limbo Rock, by Chubby Checker. Just listening to the song brings back the feeling of the cool breeze blowing around the skating rink as people sped to get in line for the limbo stick as soon as they heard the music start over the loudspeaker!
As we face our own times of limbo in this age of Corona, or in the circumstances we find ourselves in, perhaps it would perk up our spirits to hum the Limbo Rock and take it with a bow and a smile.
Most people collect something as a hobby; I’ve collected various things over the years: Stamps, postcards, arrow heads, fossils and minerals or gemstones, and coins. All of those are fairly common. The oddest thing I used to collect, in middle school, was spiders: I had about 500 different species in test tubes, and I would use them with my science fair presentations that was, for several years in a row, a growing display of all things arachnid, including my pet tarantulas. But there are folks out there who make that last collection of mine look normal: People who collect thousands of toothbrushes, or back scratchers, or “Do Not Disturb” signs, or erasers, or milk bottles. Where most of us have a collection that fits into a storage box, others have them the size of an entire room or two. OCD is probably also on the top of their profile descriptives, but then maybe they’re just passionate or fascinated about something most people would never think about collecting.
To have a look at 43 odd collections, just click HERE. Some of these are only odd in their amount collected, while others are just downright gross (think world’s largest chewed gum ball, or navel lint…). Perhaps “enjoy” is the wrong sentiment in those cases, but nevertheless, have a fascinating time vicariously checking out the odd quirks of others!
Most of my writing in the last few weeks has been intensively focused on my current novel’s manuscript; After nearly a year of Corona Virus residual exhaustion, I’ve finally been able to focus my mind; brain fuzz is apparently widely recognized now as an after-effect, but when this all started for me it was new territory for everyone. Only by talking with other friends who’ve gone through it have we pieced together which symptoms are common denominators – it doesn’t alleviate them, but it helps to know the whys and hows.
While writing, editing, and researching for my novel, I’ve been keeping one eye open for the next interesting topic for a tour, and today I found it:
This might actually fall under another category I did back in 2016: Odd jobs (just search for that in the column on the right of the screen, and you’ll find the list). Today’s tour introduces the people behind the voices we have all heard and recognize, but who we would never recognize on the street – or even know their names: Film trailer voices, bank and computer voices, and public announcers.
Come with me as we meet some of the faces behind the well-known voices:
Carolyn Hopkins: You may not have ever thought about who is behind the voice of the airport announcer – you might think it’s a random employee of the airport who just happens to be on duty in the dispatch; but you’d be wrong. In over 200 airports worldwide, you will hear the same motherly but authoritative voice of Maine resident, Carolyn Hopkins. She records those airport warnings, delays and flight changes, as well as subway announcements and storm warnings, all received by email from her modest little home office-cum-recording studio.
Susan Bennett: Though you might not know the name, you’ll know her voice: Siri.
Jane Barbie: Back in the days before cell phones, this woman was the most-listened to recording artist of all time, with her recordings heard 25 trillion times per year. Her most famous one is: “I’m sorry. The number you have dialled…”
Redd Pepper: With a booming voice, he is one of the most-recognized film trailer recording artists in the UK and beyond.
Charles Martinet: The voice behind several of Nintendo’s Super Mario’s characters for over 25 years, he’s a bit of a character himself!
Jim Cummings: As he says, you might not know him, but you know his characters: Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, too.
Here is a short videofeaturing several voice-over artists – voices you’ll recognize, with a bit of an insider look into the industry’s unseen side.
Ted Williams: About 10 years ago, a YouTube video went viral about a homeless man on the side of the road with a sign claiming that he had a radio voice; he became known as the Man with the Golden Voice. His rocket into fame was a rough ride, with people taking advantage of him, but he’s now got better management, and continues to do voice-over work and support the homeless shelter that had supported him for 20 years of his life.
Hal Douglas: One of those famous movie trailer voices, here’s a short spoof video taking the mickey out of his own job.
For a short video covering the history of how box office trailers evolved with the film industry, click here.
I hope you enjoyed getting to know some of the people behind the scenes of the media!
It’s time for another tour! Today’s tour takes us on a sweet-tooth trip: Maple syrup, and how it’s made.
Usually made from the sap of sugar-, red-, or black maple trees, this sap is stored during the cold seasons in the trunks and roots of trees before winter to keep the tree conserved and primed for the warmer season; when the temperatures rise, the tree is ready to go – it begins moving sugar from its roots to the twigs, supplying the energy needed to grow new shoots and leaves. At this point, if the tree is “tapped” by drilling holes into the trunks and attaching a collection container, the sap flows, and can be processed into maple syrup; when done properly, the tree won’t be substantially hindered in its spring production.
But why is sap from the maple tree so dominant? What about other hardwood trees? There are at least 20 tree species that can be tapped for sap, including hickory, pecan, birch, sycamore and walnut; but while the maple trees can be tapped from January to March, as long as the nights are below freezing and the days are warmer, and they produce about 40 litres sap for 1 litre of syrup, some trees, such as the birch, can only be tapped for 2-3 weeks, and because the sugar content is much lower in this tree, it would take about 60 litres sap to make 1 litre of syrup. Walnut trees can be tapped from autumn through spring, but its syrup tends to have a bitter and astringent taste, and so it’s not a popular flavour.
When you consider that tapping a tree produces drops at a time, harvesting is a slow process; it explains why some trees are less preferred by producers, as their volume-to-production values are lower. A major factor in maple syrup production is that, before the colonization of North America, sugar maple trees were the most abundant trees in their areas; as the most dominant biomass, it was natural that they were the most experimented with, and early Native American tribes recognized their potential – they used the sap for everything from sweet snacks to medicines and poultices, and passed on their knowledge to early European settlers.
A cheap alternative is a “maple-flavoured” syrup, which is nothing more than corn syrup with flavouring and colouring added; but corn syrup (also known as glucose syrup), which is made from the starch of corn and is a common sweetener in many pre-packaged foods, can lead to insulin resistance, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. It increases your appetite, promoting a vicious cycle, while the real deal, maple syrup, provides at least 24 antioxidants (according the healthline.com); these can neutralize free radicals, which are believed to be among the causes of ageing and many diseases. As with anything containing sugar, however, it should be enjoyed within reason!
So, now that we’re all on the same page as to what maple syrup actually is, let’s go on our tour!
Have you ever started what seemed like a small project, only to realize that you’d fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole, ala Wonderland?
I was sitting in my library last weekend, and I glanced up at a few old photo albums on the top shelf of one of our bookcases. I’ve been meaning to photograph, restore and edit those pictures for years, so I finally pulled one down and began. It happened to be my family history album, with photographs as far back as 1890. And so it began.
The last time I wrote an article about family history, only a couple days later I was contacted by then-unknown branches of that family – distant relatives who’d been looking for that kind of missing-link information. That article was posted on a dormant blog of mine, so I’ll post it here this coming week – who knows, maybe more relatives will show up for the party!
I spread the album open on our dining table, and began taking pictures of pictures (if you’ve ever done this, you’ll know that glossy photos are the bane of restoration attempts!), then painstakingly took out each scratch and superficial film blemish caused by age and my two emigrations (first Scotland, then Switzerland). I cropped, turned, tweaked and focused until each photo was restored and properly labelled. Then I began feeding them into a digital album program – when it’s ready, I’ll be able to order a physical hardback book, and the project will be on my cloud account to avoid losing the whole project, as happened once before (I still have the photos, and the printed book, so I can re-create it, but it hurts to have lost all that work through a computer crash, pre-cloud…!).
That’s when the first rabbit hole opened. Being a writer, I’m curious by nature. Or maybe my curiosity led me into writing. Whatever. I’m curious, and I love research. I also have a lot of experience in tracking missing persons: About 12 years ago, I tracked down nearly all of my 35 former classmates from Hawaii, 1986, from Australia to Guam to Norway to Brazil to Seattle. Every evening, when my husband came home from work, he couldn’t wait to hear what I’d accomplished that day: I “bribed” a retired LAPD detective with a bar of Swiss chocolate to track down one friend who was a hermit in the Californian mountains with no phone, no internet, and no address. I had enough for him to go on, and he put legs to my work – within 24 hours, I had my man – he came down the mountain for a phone call with me. Another friend had moved out of state from the last known address, and his name was a common one – too common to find him through conventional ways. So, I put Google Earth, white pages and intuition together, with a dose of southern charm (I’m not from the south, but I can turn it on if need be!), and got the state he’d moved to from a former neighbour of his – all he knew was where he might be working. Another friend was off-grid for security reasons – and I still tracked her down (I told her, “I could tell you how I did it, but then I’d have to kill you!” 😉) Needless to say, almost every track was an adventure.
Which brings me to the present rabbit hole: I’ve begun work on my paternal family album; on the maternal side, I don’t have any information beyond my great-grandparents, but I can trace my paternal grandmother’s family back to the Danish village they came from, on the island west of Copenhagen – and once I’ve filled in as wide as I can from the emigrated side, I’ll contact the Danish records offices or cemetery of the Old Town and go back further still if I can – so far, I’m into the 1830s; hopefully, such European records survived World Wars 1 & 2.
There are a few websites that specialize in ancestry – but most of them want to charge you to see the information. I understand that a company needs to have a viable income to offset their costs, but such websites often rely on volunteer family members feeding in that information on their own dime, so I won’t support them. I have found two websites that have proven invaluable; if you want to do something similar, here they are:
www.findagrave.com is a website gathering of history and genealogy enthusiasts who photograph tombstones and gather personal information about the individual from official documents, obits, etc., with the purpose of honouring them and allowing others to find family members. It was the first time I’d seen my own father’s gravestone. I’ve been on there less than a week, and I’ve become the custodian of a dozen virtual family graves; it will be easier to add information as I come across it in research as the rabbit hole deepens. Through the efforts of complete strangers unrelated to my family, I’ve been able to fill in the blanks of missing birthdates and death-dates, as well as next of kin, and their next of kin, and so on. Another rabbit hole!
The second website is www.wikitree.com; it is a free website, like Wikipedia, but for genealogists to collaborate through, with forums and all kinds of helpful groups to get you started. So far, I haven’t needed any of the forums myself, but I’ve been busy building up the family tree and collecting pictures and information there. As I have my husband’s family tree already, it will be my next project on that website.
Keep in mind that I’m doing all of this in my spare time; I’m working on my 5th novel’s manuscript, and I have a husband in home office through the week, which means 2 meals a day instead of just 1 to plan ahead for and prepare. Someone does laundry, and cleans the house and goes grocery shopping – but since I haven’t been able to train our cats to do that, I guess it’s me, while my husband earns our keep. He earns, I spend – it works well for us. 😉
For the sake of potential relatives searching for family names online, my heritage is as follows:
Umbarger, Kuhns, Hüsler (Huesler), Aagaard (The anglicized Danish surname is sometimes misspelled as Agard or Aagard), Aaroe, Higbee, Herring. So glad I don’t have that string on my official documents! Two things can sometimes make tracking difficult is that firstly, maiden names are exchanged for the married surname, causing a break in the chain; secondly, the Ellis Island effect – officials didn’t know how to spell the name properly, so they recorded it phonetically, which makes unravelling the true path more of a challenge.
This week, the intrigue continues as I begin trying to track down the missing branches of my family. My goal is to make the album project available to even distant relatives who might be interested, although it will obviously have the emphasis of my personal perspective as far as photos go, the closer to my generation I get.
Have you done any family history research, or a family tree? Have you ever taken a DNA test? If so, what did it reveal about you and your ancestors? Please comment below!
How many of you have ever heard something like, “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you the following important information”? This is a phrase used by radio and television channels in some English-speaking countries to announce emergency conditions. When you hear that, you expect the message to be important enough to warrant the disruption. But most of us grew up (if we had any kind of guidance from parents) knowing that it was rude to interrupt; we learned to wait for an appropriate moment to introduce an opinion or a change in topic.
How many of us like having our concentration or focus ripped apart by someone or something breaking into our reveries or a conversation with a friend? If you’re deeply focused, it is jarring to be interrupted. Once is okay; a dozen times is beyond irritating.
Unfortunately, this bad habit has become a trending behaviour online: You’re watching a video on YouTube, and mid-sentence of the documentary or instructional video, or mid-action of whatever you’re watching, you are suddenly expected to switch focus to an annoying commercial (are they intentionally made abrasive to grab your attention?). Now don’t misunderstand me: I realize that the material on YouTube is free of charge, and someone needs to generate revenue to pay for it all; but does it need to be mid-sentence? Why not wait until an appropriate break in the video? It’s too much work to be digitally polite, apparently. [I just hit Alt + delete at the beginning of every video; it will skip ads with only a hiccup.] For me, this isn’t just an interruption; it’s a rude, deliberate attempt to distract me from my original focus. I don’t know about you, but such ads don’t leave me any desire to hear their message or give them my business; if anything, I’ll avoid their products.
Another digital interruption I’ve noticed on the rise on sites such as Pinterest is the bombarding of my home feed with inane pins: Last week it was Asian teeny bands, or today surfing ads, Cambodian royalty, gossip magazines and paparazzi pins – none of which have anything to do with either my interests or my recent activities. On Pinterest at the moment, my feed is stuffed with useless fluff. I wrote a complaint, and they cleared away the Asian bands, only to have them replaced with the above-mentioned idiocy. To actually find what I’m searching for, my focus is wrenched back and forth. Every. Other. Pin. Guess what? I won’t be on Pinterest as much any more. Facebook did the same thing; I’m not there, and have no intention of going back all that often (the only reason I keep my FB account is to keep in contact with international friends and family).
So what can we do? Do we have to accept this behaviour? No; but raising other people’s children costs time and energy. But it does work: Write a complaint; give feedback when requested or not; block such pins or links as spam (= “misleading and/or repetitive”). This same principle applies to content farms online (e.g. So Yummy, Troom Troom or 5-Minute Crafts): If you come across their videos and watch them, and notice something faked, dangerous, or repetitive (every one of their videos contain one or all of the above), don’t “dislike” or comment – that just tells the algorithm that someone saw it and that it elicited a response; click on the three dots near the video and report it. If you’d like to go farther down this particular rabbit hole, a good place to start is Ann Reardon’s informative videos about debunking fake videos; her husband is a journalist and writer, and puts his investigative skills to good use (if you want to skip her food testing and get straight to the investigation, click to 12:05 in the video).
The internet can be a wonderful place to learn, to do research, and to be entertained; but be aware of the growing trend of subtle manoeuvres by algorithms, digital echo chambers and flashy ads to manipulate your perceptions, opinions, and habits. Take time to act and move around wisely, even if it’s in cyberspace. Discernment may be an old-fashioned concept to some, but it’s a lifeline in the sea of churnalism in today’s world.
As I recently mentioned, we had problems with kitchen moths; the source has been found (dates) – the jar which contained them also isolated them; I played the jar like a maraca and sang “La Cucaracha” as we put them in the compost. We are now moth-free! Woo-hoo!
We really appreciate the advantages of storing everything in glass jars: It looks pretty, we can see exactly how much we have, what we have, and it’s inviting to be creative in meal planning. One of the pasta jars we have contains mini “Hörnli / Hoernli” – the Swiss word for “little horns” and what the rest of the world probably refers to as macaroni. The topic came up as a meal idea, and of course, being us, we got into the historical aspect. Where did it originally come from? Did it arrive in America with Italian immigrants or is it a hybrid dish?
This image above is nearly sacrilege for many people, myself included – I cannot imagine eating pasta from a can! But just after World War 2, manufacturing of canned goods, frozen meals and the like were coming into their stride as families pieced their lives back together and got on with the business of rebuilding the country and economy; televisions entered the home mainstream in the early 1950s (think black and white, rabbit ear antennas, no remote and 2 channels) – but that’s another topic. Product placement during television programmes and news was a major factor in influencing the purchasing power of the average consumer (product placement may have begun as early as 1873, when Jules Verne’s fame led shipping companies to lobby being mentioned by name in his upcoming novel, “Around the World in 80 Days”).*
The oldest known reference to a dish that may be recognizable as the ancestor to the modern concoction is from the 13th century, from someone in the court of Charles II of Anjou who was familiar with the Neapolitan court; the dish was basically prepared with sheets of lasagne sliced into small squares, cooked in water and tossed with Parmesan cheese. The American version some might be more familiar with has two claims to ancestry: Either it began as a Connecticut church supper dish known as Macaroni Pudding, or it was brought over from Italy in the form of a recipe by Thomas Jefferson, who also brought back a pasta machine.
So, where was the noodle dish invented that we know today as “Macaroni and Cheese”? Switzerland, of course!
The dish, known as “Älplermagronen” (=”Alpine herders’ macaroni“) in the German-speaking areas and “Macaroni du Chalet” in the French-speaking areas, is made with those Hörnli, also known as “Magronen”, which were dubbed for the horns of the cattle, sheep and goats which the herders tend. The cheese was often a local product from the milk of those very animals, and the dry pasta was easy to hike up to their summer chalets where they slept on the Alps during the summer grazing seasons.
For a good, long read about the history of the pasta, click here for a “BBC Travel” article on the topic – and get a good taste of the Swiss Alps in the meal! And be honest – how many of you have a hankering for Mac & cheese after reading this? Click on the image below for an authentic recipe.
Image credit: Betty Bossi (the Swiss version of Betty Crocker)
*Information source: Wikipedia, William Butcher (translation and introduction). Around the World in Eighty Days, Oxford Worlds Classics, 1995, Introduction.
I do a lot of crafts. I mean, a lot variety-wise, and a lot quantity-wise. When I’m not writing, managing our household, planning meetings or teaching students (I’m a vocal coach and an English teacher for adults), I’m usually doing some kind of craft, and it more often than not involves some form of upcycling – turning “trash” into “treasures”. Recently, I’ve been making sheets of plastic-confetti-filled bubble wrap, ironed into what’s known as “ploth” (plastic cloth). These can then be sewn into bags, etc. It got me to thinking about just how bubble wrap came to be. I have tons of the stuff, stashed here and there in the craft room, for such projects – and I’m constantly on the lookout for creative uses for that poppable fun.
Did you know that originally it wasn’t intended as packing material but as wallpaper? In 1957, Swiss chemist Marc Chavannes and his business partner, Alfred Fielding, wanted to make a wallpaper that would appeal to the emerging Beat culture [for those of you unfamiliar with that term, it was a generation of post-war, anti-establishment rebels who were more or less the precursor to the 60’s hippie and counterculture movements]. What the partners did was simple enough: They put two layers of a plastic shower curtain through a heat-sealing machine. But it came out in what they first saw as a failure, with air bubbles trapped between the two layers. They figured they were onto something, failure or not, and so they got a patent and then began experimenting to find other uses. Wallpaper wasn’t popular; neither was their suggestion to use it as insulation for greenhouses (perhaps that was simply a matter of marketing to the wrong demographic). Then, around 1960, IBM began shipping their newly-designed 1410 computers and needed a way to protect the delicate dinosaurs – eh, I mean, computing mammoths. That’s a LOT of bubble wrap. The rest is, as they say, history. And in case you’re wondering, yes, people have been popping the bubbles from the beginning, just for fun. So much fun, in fact, that the last Monday of every January is officially “Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day”.
Click on the image below to watch an IBM recruiting film (1 minute), from 1960. You can also see one of IBM’s massive scientific mainframes being used by the original “computers” of NASA in the film “Hidden Figures“.
IBM’s 1410 computer promotional photo, 1959. Credit, Computer History Museum archives
If you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you know that my curiosity likes to sprint down obscure paths. I recently finished the first draft of my next novel (Woohoo! Now the real work ahead!), and one of the things I was researching was something I wanted to write but then hit that proverbial wall: Do I use pit or seed in this context? And what’s the actual difference between the two, or are they interchangeable? And where does stone or pip come in?
Well, as with any roadsign to curious paths, I pulled out my walking stick – or in this case, the dictionary (as in, Wiktionary). And as you’ll see, just looking it up won’t do – I had to learn a wee bit about botany along the way:
Endo- means within, inner, absorbing, or containing. Peri- means peripheral, or surrounding; Meso- means middle (as in Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic); Exo- means outer (as in exoplanet); and -carp means part of a fruit or fruiting body. I tend to remember something better if I can make a linguistic leap of understanding, and the suffix carp- actually comes from the Greek word Karpos, which was the mythological son of the west wind and spring (new vegetation), which naturally includes fruit.
In this instance, however, the dictionary wasn’t exactly helpful:
SEED: A fertilized and ripened ovule*, containing an embryonic plant. [*the structure in a plant that develops into a seed after fertilization.]
I don’t know about you, but I found myself none the wiser.
PIT is even more confusing! It’s a seed, stone or pip inside a fruit, or a shell in a drupe (such as a peach) containing a seed.
PIP makes the issue even foggier: It’s a British term for a seed inside certain fleshy fruits (compare stone/pit), such as a peach, orange, or apple!
STONE seems the clearest definition (insert sarcastic tone here): The central part of some fruits, particularly drupes; consisting of the seed and a hard endocarp layer.
If I had to put it in layman’s terms, I’d say it like this: The seed contains the embryo; the pit/pip/stone protects the seed until it’s ready to sprout (and only certain types of fruits have pits); pits are usually singular in a fruit, while there may be one or more seeds.
Pits are found in fruits like cherries, mangoes, peaches, plums, avocadoes, olives and dates. Seeds are found in fruits like apples, oranges, and bananas (the variety of bananas usually sold in stores usually have sterile seeds – what we might call “seedless”). If I can follow this jungle-infested side path for a moment, did you know that bananas don’t actually grow on trees, but are the world’s largest herb, and that they grow upside-down, defying gravity? Another interesting point is that a seedless banana can still propagate itself – I should rather refer to it as clone: Each” tree” (i.e. layers of leaves) produces 1 bunch of fruit and then dies; but its rhizome, below ground, simply sprouts up as the one is dying and repeats the process.
Then there’s the hairy issue of the coconut: Technically, it’s a one-seeded drupe; but it could be considered a fruit, a nut, or even a seed. When you buy a coconut in the store, the outer layers have generally been stripped off: The exocarp is usually green; the fibrous husk beneath that is the mesocarp, and the hard, woody layer we often think of as “a coconut” is actually the endocarp. Every part of the coconut and the palm plant (not tree) on which it grows can be used for something, so it’s often referred to as “the tree of life”.
And let’s not get into figs; they’re technically inverted flowers, and besides, there’s probably a wasp inside there (without the fig wasp, we’d have no figs). Now ya know. Don’t look into that too closely unless you really want to know, because you’ll never look at a fig the same way again.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock all your life, chances are you’ve eaten carrots. Orange through and through, they can be eaten sweet, as in a carrot cake, or savoury with dips or in a stew. But where did they come from? Have they always been orange? The short answers are Central Asia, and nope.
Carrots, which likely originated in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush ranges and spread along the Silk Road, were white/ivory wild roots gleaned for their leaves and seeds – much like their genetic relatives of coriander and parsley, and it may be that the products of these plants were used medicinally, like many other plants and herbs.
They were first cultivated as a food crop in the Iranian Plateau and Persia, and even today the centre of diversity remains in the region, in Afghanistan. Long before they were cultivated, the wild varieties had become widespread throughout Europe, as far back as 5,000 years ago, though fossilized pollen has been identified as belonging to the carrot family in the Eocene period (55 to 34 million years ago).
These little roots have approximately 32,000 genes, which is more than you and I do; and just two of those genes are recessive, creating a build-up of alpha- and beta-carotene. Over a thousand years ago, purple and yellow varieties began to appear, and around 600 years ago, the orange variety began to dominate the market, appearing in Spain and Germany around the 15th or 16th century.
One apocryphal theory is that the orange coloured carrots were cultivated by the Dutch in honour of William of Orange, a 16th century commander who fought against the Habsburg dynasty; even if this legend isn’t true, the orange carrot did become associated with William of Orange, and during the 18th century, the noticeable display at market stalls was considered to be a provocative political gesture in support of William’s descendant, who had been driven from the English throne. The distaste for the political figure didn’t stem the taste for the root, however, and they grew in popularity. Most modern orange carrots descend from a strain grown in Hoorn, Holland; today’s carrots, more vivid orange, contain 50% more carotene than those of 1970. Modern carrot breeders continue to refine the carrot, improving flavour, colour and texture, as well as reducing bitterness and enhancing sweetness.
Though other varieties of carrots are making a comeback, the beta-carotene and vitamin A which causes the deep orange was thought to improve eyesight (that is a misnomer). This led to a diversion tactic of the British during World War 2: They claimed that eating carrots improved night-vision and that their pilots ate carrots to have that advantage; it was misinformation spread to hide the Royal Air Force’s development of radar technology from the Germans. Aside from the propaganda ploy by the military, carrots were a staple in the diets of the British, who used the humble root as a sweetener and a vegetable staple, and was promoted for health benefits. Food rationing tightened the Brits’ belts, but the carrot came to the rescue; it was a common, home-grown staple, and could be used as a substitute for restricted items as it was not subject to rationing. Carrot was even used as a secret code word, broadcast by the BBC in French to the French Resistance, to warn of the impending D-Day landing in Normandy: On the 4th of June 1944, several messages that seemed nonsensical to listeners were broadcast, including, “les carottes sont cuites, je répète, les carottes sont cuites!” (“The carrots are cooked, I repeat, the carrots are cooked!”) This gave the resistance fighters the signal to carry out their plans to sabotage railway and telephone lines. Carrots were the last vegetables added to a stew; if they were already cooked, it meant that the plans were set – no going back. Normandy landings began the next day, 5 June, which led to the liberation of France and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis.
The word carrot was first recorded in English around 1530 and was borrowed from Middle French carotte, originally from the Indo-European root *ker– (horn), probably due to its horn-like shape. At the time, carrots (white) were visually similar to parsnips, the two being collectively called moru (from the Proto-Indo-European word mork (edible root)); the German for carrot is Möhre).
For more information than most people could possibly use in their lifetime, check out this link to The Carrot Museum, my main source of information for this article (along with the Economist).
The next time you sit down to a good vegetable stew or a plate of crudité and dips, think of the grand history of the humble carrot.