Why Carrots Are Orange

This issue I offer an assortment of odds and ends that I ran across in one place or another.

Item #1: From the time we are young and begin to have ingrained on our developing minds the concept that vegetables are good for our bodies, there are certain realizations we quickly discern. One of these is that beets, regardless of how they are served, are awful (okay, this is a purely personal observation) and another is that the orange things on our plates are carrots.

As adults we know these things to be true (at least the part about carrots being orange), but according to Philipp Simon, a horticulture researcher at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, carrots were not always orange. Simon says (I couldn’t resist this) that during the Middle Ages, carrots were either purple or white in color. Human intervention sometime during the 1600s created the orange pigmentation we have all grown so fond (?) of.

When you pause to think about this, it makes a great deal of sense. The orange color we see in the carrots of today is the result of beta carotene being present. Interestingly, however, beta carotene serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever in a carrot. Beta carotene is a key ingredient in photosynthesis – the process which changes sunlight into food for plants. Yet, carrots are roots, spending their entire life underground, thus never seeing sunlight until they are harvested.

Simon believes that gardeners, at some point, began experimenting with the rare orange breed of carrot, probably because of its novelty. The purple version that existed centuries ago comes from a pigment called anthocyanin, which is also found in potatoes and cranberries. Like beta carotene, anthocyanin is linked to some health benefits, and Simon is attempting to develop a modern strain of purple carrots (for reasons known only to himself).

While I’m on the subject of vegetables and the Middle Ages, I was interested to learn a number of years ago, that when your typical Middle Ages citizen sat down to eat a good steak (this probably didn’t happen often, but let me go with this one) the side dish wasn’t potatoes. The most likely culinary creation to adorn the plate was…parsnips!

You know, back when I was in Chicago, I did some work for a couple of companies on South Water Market delivering produce. Until that time I had never even seen a parsnip, but once I discovered them, they were unforgettable. It is difficult to really communicate how pungent this vegetable is…permeating the air with a sickly sweet pepperminty smell. These things were so awful that, whenever we had an open bag in the cooler, we resealed it and double bagged it to prevent the odor from spoiling all the other food.

I can only presume that during the Middle Ages, with open air sewers and garbage heaping everywhere, that no one particularly noticed the smell, or, perhaps they considered this vile aroma an air freshener by comparison. Whatever the case, we can all say a little thanks for the civilizing influence of the relatively odor-free potato.

Item #2: A small news item caught my eye the other day because it happened in Beloit, one of my old homes. It seems that Rock County Assistant District Attorney, Gerald Urbik was embarrassed during his closing arguments in a drug trial when he reached for $100 worth of marijuana and $580 cash from the evidence table and it was no where to be found. The jury broke into laughter.

It turns out that the evidence was pilfered by a 15-year-old boy who was watching the trial. During a break in the trial he was one of two teenagers who stayed in the courtroom. Obviously, the youth is no master criminal.

Now that I’ve brought up the subject of the boy’s relative intelligence, we come to the question which came to my mind when I read this report: since the theft of the evidence occurred in the courtroom on a Monday, why was a 15-year-old boy sitting watching a trial rather than sitting in a classroom listening to American History or Algebra?

Item #3: On the subject of questions that have popped into my mind lately comes the following.

With the Packers’ Super Bowl victory there is now a profusion of those small Packer flags adorning the sides of automobiles in Wisconsin. My question is this: Does a flag on the right side of the car mean that a heterosexual Packer fan is on board, and on the left side of the car a homosexual Packer fan is on board? Or is it vice versa?

Item #4: Finally, a Quote of the Week, which is actually a Phrase of the Week.

In an era of political correctness, the human imagination has become rather creative with our native language. More often than not I find these turns of the tongue rather insipid. Every once in a while, however, someone coins a phrase which is not only funny, it is also clever.

My case in point, and the Quote/Phrase of the Week comes from an ardent advocate of nude sunbathing who referred to traditional sunbathers (i.e. those who wear swimming suits) as “Textile Dependent Tanners.”