November 27, 2013
Americans consume 5,062,500 gallons of jellied cranberry sauce—Ocean Spray’s official name for the traditional Thanksgiving side dish we know and love that holds the shape of the can it comes in—every holiday season. That’s four million pounds of cranberries—200 berries in each can—that reach a gel-like consistency from pectin, a natural setting agent found in the food. If you’re part of the 26 percent of Americans who make homemade sauce during the holidays, consider that only about five percent of America’s total cranberry crop is sold as fresh fruit. Also consider that 100 years ago, cranberries were only available fresh for a mere two months out of the year (they are usually harvested mid-September until around mid-November in North America making them the perfect Thanksgiving side). In 1912, one savvy businessman devised a way to change the cranberry industry forever.
Marcus L. Urann was a lawyer with big plans. At the turn of the 20th century, he left his legal career to buy a cranberry bog. “I felt I could do something for New England. You know, everything in life is what you do for others,” Urann said in an interview published in the Spokane Daily Chronicle in 1959, decades after his inspired career change. His altruistic motives aside, Urann was a savvy businessman who knew how to work a market. After he set up cooking facilities at as packinghouse in Hanson, Massachusetts, he began to consider ways to extend the short selling season of the berries. Canning them, in particular, he knew would make the berry a year-round product.
“Cranberries are picked during a six-week period,” Robert Cox, coauthor of Massachusetts Cranberry Culture: A History from Bog to Table says. “Before canning technology, the product had to be consumed immediately and the rest of the year there was almost no market. Urann’s canned cranberry sauce and juice are revolutionary innovations because they produced a product with a shelf life of months and months instead of just days.”
Native Americans were the first to cultivate the cranberry in North America, but the berries weren’t marketed and sold commercially until the middle of the 18th century. Revolutionary war veteran Henry Hall is often credited with planting the first-known commercial cranberry bed in Dennis, Massachusetts in 1816, but Cox says Sir Joseph Banks, one of the most important figures of his time in British science, was harvesting cranberries in Britain a decade earlier from seeds that were sent over from the states—Banks just never marketed them. By the mid-19th century, what we know as the modern cranberry industry was in full swing and the competition among bog growers was fierce.
The business model worked on a small scale at first: families and members of the community harvested wild cranberries and then sold them locally or to a middle man before retail. As the market expanded to larger cities like Boston, Providence and New York, growers relied on cheap labor from migrant workers. Farmers competed to unload their surpluses fast—what was once a small, local venture, became a boom or bust business.
What kept the cranberry market from really exploding was a combination of geography and economics. The berries require a very particular environment for a successful crop, and are localized to areas like Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Last year, I investigated where various items on the Thanksgiving menu were grown: “Cranberries are picky when it comes to growing conditions… Because they are traditionally grown in natural wetlands, they need a lot of water. During the long, cold winter months, they also require a period of dormancy which rules out any southern region of the U.S. as an option for cranberry farming.”
Urann’s idea to can and juice cranberries in 1912 created a market that cranberry growers had never seen before. But his business sense went even further.
“He had the savvy, the finances, the connections and the innovative spirit to make change happen. He wasn’t the only one to cook cranberry sauce, he wasn’t the only one to develop new products, but he was the first to come up with the idea,” says Cox. His innovative ideas were helped by a change in how cranberries were harvested.
In the 1930s, techniques transitioned from “dry” to “wet”— a confusing distinction, says Sharon Newcomb, brand communication specialist with Ocean Spray. Cranberries grow on vines and can be harvested either by picking them individually by hand (dry) or by flooding the bog at time of harvest (wet) like what we see in many Ocean Spray commercials. Today about 90 percent of cranberries are picked using wet harvesting techniques. “Cranberries are a hearty plant, they grow in acidic, sandy soil,” Newcomb says. “A lot of people, when they see our commercials think cranberries grow in water.”
The water helps to separate the berry from the vine and small air pockets in the berries allow them to float to the surface. Rather than taking a week, you could do it in an afternoon. Instead of a team of 20 or 30, bogs now have a team of four or five. After the wet harvesting option was introduced in the mid to late 1900s, growers looked to new methods of using their crop, including canning, freezing, drying, juicing berries, Cox says.
Urann also helped develop a number of novel cranberry products, like the cranberry juice cocktail in 1933, for example, and six years later, he came up with a syrup for mixed drinks. The famous (or infamous) cranberry sauce “log” we know today became available nationwide in 1941.
Urann had tackled the challenge of harvesting a crop prone to glut and seesawing prices, but federal regulations stood in the way of him cornering the market. He had seen other industries fall under scrutiny for violating antitrust laws; in 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which was followed by additional legislation, including the Clayton Act of 1914 and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914.
In 1930, Urann convinced his competitors John C. Makepeace of the AD Makepeace company—the nation’s largest grower at the time—and Elizabeth F. Lee of the New Jersey-based Cranberry Products Company to join forces under the cooperative, Cranberry Canners, Inc. His creation, a cooperative that minimized the risks from the crop’s price and volume instability, would have been illegal had attorney John Quarles not found an exemption for agricultural cooperatives in the Capper-Volstead act of 1922, which gave “associations” making agricultural products limited exemptions from anti-trust laws.
After World War II, in 1946, the cooperative became the National Cranberry Association and by 1957 changed its name to Ocean Spray. (Fun Fact: Urann at first “borrowed” the Ocean Spray name and added the image of the breaking wave, and cranberry vines from a fish company in Washington State from which he later bought the rights). Later, Urann would tell the Associated Press why he believed the cooperative structure worked: ”grower control (which) means ‘self control’ to maintain the lowest possible price to consumers.” In theory, the cooperative would keep the competition among growers at bay. Cox explains:
From the beginning, the relationship between the three [Urann, Makepeace and Lee] was fraught with mistrust, but on the principle that one should keep one’s enemies closer than one’s friends, the cooperative pursued a canned version of the [American Cranberry Exchange] ACE’s fresh strategy, rationalizing production, distribution, quality control, marketing and pricing.
Ocean Spray still is a cooperative of 600 independent growers across the United States that work together to set prices and standards.
We can’t thank Urann in person for his contribution to our yearly cranberry intake (he died in 1963), but we can at least visualize this: If you lay out all the cans of sauce consumed in a year from end to end, it would stretch 3,385 miles—the length of 67,500 football fields. To those of you ready to crack open your can of jellied cranberry sauce this fall, cheers.
October 24, 2013
The avocado is a fruit of a different time. The plant hit its evolutionary prime during the beginning of the Cenozoic era when megafauna, including mammoths, horses, gomphotheres and giant ground sloths (some of them weighing more than a UPS truck) roamed across North America, from Oregon to the panhandle of Florida. The fruit attracted these very large animals (megafauna by definition weigh at least 100 pounds) that would then eat it whole, travel far distances and defecate, leaving the seed to grow in a new place. That’s the goal of all botanical fruits, really. Survival and growth via seed dispersal.
But the great mammals disappeared forever about 13,000 years ago in the Western Hemisphere. Around that time, North America lost 68 percent of its diverse Pleistocene megafauna, and South America lost 80 percent, Connie Barlow, author of The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, And Other Ecological Anachronisms says. But even after this major shift in the land mammal population, the wild avocado still requires the same method of seed dispersal, which makes it somewhat of an evolutionary anachronism.
“After 13,000 years, the avocado is clueless that the great mammals are gone,” Barlow explains. “Without larger mammals like the ground sloth to carry the seed far distances, the avocado seeds would rot where they’ve fallen and must compete with the parent tree for light and growth.”
A fruit with smaller seeds, like a berry, for example, can be consumed whole and dispersed by small mammals, making the chances of fruiting in a new place higher.
After the giant mammals had died out, if an avocado tree was lucky, a jaguar might’ve found the fruit attractive—the cat’s stomach is designed for digesting large hunks of meat, leaving potential for swallowing the avocado whole, though there is no evidence to support this idea. Rodents like squirrels and mice may have also contributed, as they traveled and buried seeds in the ground, rather than letting it rot on the surface. Wild avocados were appealing to larger animals because it had enough tasty flesh to lure them in and could be eaten in one bite. The fruit had a larger pit and less flesh than today’s avocados, but it really served as a quick snack for big mammals like the mammoth. Barlow writes in “Haunting the Wild Avocado,” originally published in Biodversity:
The identities of the dispersers shifted every few million years, but from an avocado’s perspective, a big mouth is a big mouth and a friendly gut is a friendly gut. The passage of a trifling 13,000 years (since the Pleistocene extinction) is too soon to exhaust the patience of genus Persea. The genes that shape fruits ideal for megafauna retain a powerful memory of an extraordinary mutualistic relationship.
How the avocado still exists in the wild after surviving its evolutionary failures remains a puzzle. But once Homo sapiens evolved to the point where it could cultivate the species, the fruit had the chance to thrive anew. Back when the giant beasts roamed the earth, the avocado would’ve been a large seed with a small fleshy area—less attractive to smaller mammals such as ourselves. Through cultivation, humans have bulked up avocados so there is more flesh for us to eat.
The avocado has been a staple food in Mexico, as well as Central and South America, since 500 B.C. Spanish conquistadors discovered the fruit from the Aztecs in the 16th century, but the ahuacate, the Aztec word for “avocado,” wasn’t grown commercially in the United States until the turn of the 20th century. By 1914, the exotic fruit made an appearance on California soil. Roughly 90 percent of today’s avocados are grown in California according to NPR. But Barlow is quick to point out the difference between a cultivated avocado and those found naturally.
“The wild varieties of avocados that are still somewhat available have a thin fleshy area around the seed—it wouldn’t necessarily be something that we would recognize as edible,” says Barlow. “When we go to the store and we see an avocado on sale, it’s always a question of will this be one with a tiny seed, or will it be a batch where the seed takes up five-sixths of the space of the fruit?”
Ecologist Dan Janzen conducted groundbreaking research on these and other “anachronistic fruits” and found that the avocado isn’t alone in this regard. His research in the late ’70s in the neotropics— an ecozone that includes both Americas and the entire South American temperate zone—sparked a shift in ecological thinking regarding these evolutionary-stunted fruits. Other examples include: papaya, cherimoya, sapote and countless other fleshy fruits of the neotropics. Another surprising “ghost” you may see everyday: Honey locust pods scattered about your driveway. All of these fruits are not considered edible by most native mammalian standards today. Barlow continues:
“In 1977, however, [Janzen] was beginning to suspect that he—along with every other ecologist working with large tropical fruits of the New World—had been wrong in one very big way. They all had failed to see that some fruits are adapted primarily for animals that have been extinct for 13,000 years.”
“We don’t have the liver or the enzyme systems to detoxify our bodies from something like the avocado seed,” Barlow says. “But at the same time, the rhino which has been around for ages, can eat all kinds of things that are toxic to everyone else.”
A South American folk recipe for rat poison mixes avocado pits with cheese or lard to kill off unwanted rodents. Whether or not humans are supposed to eat avocados from an evolutionary standpoint, America produced 226,450 tons of the fruit and consumed 4.5 pounds per capita in 2011. The avocado, a true “ghost of evolution,” lives on.
More avocado facts to drop at your next party:
- The Aztec word for avocado, ahuacatl means “testicle”. This is most likely because the avocado, growing in pairs, resembled the body part. After the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, Spanish speakers substituted the form avocado for the Aztec (Nahuatl) word because ahuacatl sounded like the early Spanish word avocado (now abogado), meaning “lawyer.”
- The Spanish-Mexican word “guacamole” was derived from ahuacamolli, meaning “avocado soup or sauce,” made from mashed avocados, chiles, onions and tomatoes.
- For reasons related to the word’s origin, the avocado is also considered an aphrodisiac. According to the book The Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia, by the time the fruit traveled to Europe, the Sun King (Louis XIV) nicknamed avocados la bonne poire (the good pear) because he believed it restored his lagging libido.
- The Hass variety of avocado was named after a postal employee, Rudolph Hass, who purchased the seedling in 1926 from a California farmer.
- For more information regarding other “ghosts of evolution” Barlow’s theme song is a great listen:
October 21, 2013
It was the second day of autumn term at a small boys’ school in South London in 1979. Without warning, 78 schoolboys and a handful of monitors simultaneously fell ill. Symptoms included vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and, in severe cases, depression of the central nervous system. Several patients were comatose with episodes of convulsive twitching and violent fits of fever. In many patients, there were signs of peripheral circulatory collapse. Within five days of the initial outbreak, all patients recovered in full, though some hallucinated for several days, Mary McMillan and J.C. Thompson report in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine. But what could cause such a sudden and mysterious illness?
Turns out, a bag of potatoes left in storage from the previous summer term.
After careful analysis of the sequence of events, the onset of symptoms was pinpointed to about four to 14 hours after the boys had eaten boiled potatoes that had a high concentration of the toxin, solanine, a glycoalkaloid that was first isolated in 1820 in the berries of a European black nightshade. Nightshade is the term used to describe over 2,800 species of plants in the scientific family, Solanaceae. Eggplants, tomatoes, and some berries are common members of the nightshade family—many of them contain highly toxic alkaloids.
That said, the potato is the most common cause of solanine poisoning in humans. But how do you know when solanine is present in a potato? The tuber is turning green.
Though the green color that forms on the skin of a potato is actually chlorophyll, which isn’t toxic at all (it’s the plant’s response to light exposure), the presence of chlorophyll indicates concentrations of solanine. The nerve toxin is produced in the green part of the potato (the leaves, the stem, and any green spots on the skin). The reason it exists? It’s a part of the plant’s defense against insects, disease and other predators.
If you eat enough of the green stuff, it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, paralysis of the central nervous system (as evidenced by the incident above) but in some rare cases the poisoning can cause coma—even death. Studies have recorded illnesses caused by a range of 30 to 50 mg of solanine per 100 grams of potato, but symptoms vary depending on the ratio of body weight of the toxin and the individual’s tolerance of the alkaloid. The following cases recorded in various medical journals include examples of some of the most severe cases of solanine poisoning (many of which resulted in death):
1899: After eating cooked potatoes containing 0.24 mg of solanine per gram of potato, 56 German soldiers experienced solanine poisoning. Though all recovered, in a few cases, jaundice and partial paralysis were observed.
1918: In Glasgow, Scotland, 61 people from 18 separate households were affected at once by a bad batch of potatoes. The following day, a five-year-old boy died of strangulation of the bowel following extreme retching and vomiting. According to “An Investigation of Solanine Poisoning” by S. G. Willimott, PhD, B.Sc. published in 1933, the case was investigated by scientists, R. W. Harris and T. Cockburn, who concluded in their article, “Alleged Poisoning By Potatoes” (1918), that the poisoning was the result of eating potatoes which contained five or six times the amount of solanine found in normal potatoes. Willimott cites this particular occurrence as an example of the toxin’s prevalence: “A review of the literature reveals the fact that authentic cases of solanine poisoning are not so rare as authorities appear to believe.”
1925: Seven members of a family were poisoned by greened potatoes. Two of them died. According to reports, symptoms included vomiting, extreme exhaustion, but no convulsions like that of the schoolboys in London. Breathing was rapid and labored until consciousness was lost a few hours before death.
1948: A case of solanine poisoning involving the potato’s nightshade relative, the berry, was recorded in the article “A Fatal Case of Solanine Poisoning“ published in the British Medical Journal. On August 13 of that year, a 9-year-old girl with a bad habit of snacking on the berries that grew along the railroad tracks by her house was admitted to the hospital with symptoms of vomiting, abdominal pain, and distressed breathing. She died two days later. An autopsy found hemorrhages in the mucosa of stomach and middle section of her small intestine. The stomach contained about one pint of dark brown fluid.
1952: According to the British Medical Journal, solanine poisoning is most common during times of food shortage. In the face of starvation, there have been accounts of large groups eating older potatoes with a higher concentration of the toxin. In North Korea during the war years of 1952-1953, entire communities were forced to eat rotting potatoes. In one area alone, 382 people were affected, of whom 52 were hospitalized and 22 died. The most severe cases died of heart failure within 24 hours of potato consumption. Some of the less severe symptoms included irregular pulses, enlargement of the heart, and blueing lips and ears. Those who displayed these ailments died within 5 or 10 days. Authors John Emsley and Peter Fell explain their book Was It Something You Ate?: Food Intolerance: What Causes It and How to Avoid It: ”In the final stages [of the illness] there were sometimes a state of high excitability with shaking attacks and death was due to respiratory failure.”
1983: Sixty-one of 109 school children and staff in Alberta, Canada, fell ill within five minutes of eating baked potato. Forty-four percent of those affected noted a green tinge and a bitter taste in the potatoes.
Not to worry though, fatal cases of solanine poisoning are very rare these days. Most commercial varieties of potatoes are screened for solanine, but any potato will build up the toxin to dangerous levels if exposed to light or stored improperly. Often, the highest concentrations of solanine are in the peel, just below the surface and in the sprouted “eyes”—things that are typically removed in cooking preparation—though Warren would argue even boiling water in potato prep dissolves only a little of the alkaloid. Emsley and Fell continue:
Most people can easily cope with the solanine in the average portion of potato and show no symptoms of poisoning because the body can break it down and rapidly and excrete the products in the urine. But if the level of solanine is as high as 40 mg per 100 g of potato, symptoms include diarrhea…even coma.
The best way to prevent solanine poisoning is to store tubers in a cool, dark place and remove the skin before consumption. A general rule for avoiding illnesses like the ones described above? Green and sprouted? Throw it out.
September 10, 2013
The American superhighway system is dotted with some truly bizarre and unique roadside attractions. There are dinosaurs, Cadillacs stuck in the ground and kitschy souvenir stops with advertisements of questionable taste. But for those drivers with some extra time on their cross country trips, they should add these large, statue versions of everyone’s favorite foods to their itinerary. We’ve narrowed down the cornucopia of foods to 10 must-see, “World’s Largest” food-related attractions for your hypothetical (or real) adventure.
1) Strawberry—Ellerbe, North Carolina
The Berry Patch, off of old Highway 220, in Ellerbe, North Carolina, got its start as a small patch in 1995 run by the appropriately monikered Berry family. In 2002, they built the self-described “World’s Largest Strawberry” to house their homemade ice cream shop. The 24-foot tall building is made from sheet rock and polyurethane foam molded to its berry shape. There are a few other self-proclaimed largest strawberries: one worth highlighting is this 130-foot tall berry water towerin Poteet, Texas.
2) Peach—Gaffney, South Carolina
Once you hit I-85 West leaving from Charlotte, North Carolina, toward Atlanta, Georgia, look up. The world’s largest peach structure in Gaffney, South Carolina, a peach-painted water tower also known as the Peachoid, stands at 135 feet tall and holds one million gallons of liquid. The giant peach (No, James and his friends do not live inside) was commissioned by the Board of Public Works in Gaffney in 1981. The foundation used no less than 10 million gallons of concrete and the 60-foot leaf along the side of the peach weighs seven tons. As the story goes, the people of Gaffney picked the peach tower because at the time of its construction, the local economy was dependent on peach orchards. The water tower served as a (large) reminder that Georgia, known as the “Peach State,” produced fewer peaches than Cherokee County. Today, South Carolina produces over 200 million pounds of peacheson average a year, second to California. (Georgia is the third largest producer).
3) Peanut—Ashburn, Georgia
Floodlights shine on the World’s Largest Peanut located off of I-75 in Ashburn, Georgia. The peanut, which hovers above an impressive crown, was built in 1975 and designed by A.R. Smith, Jr. to honor the state’s official crop. (Georgia produces almost 50 percent of the total United States peanut crop). The monument became an official state symbolin 1998.
4) Field of Corn—Dublin, Ohio
On an acre-and-a-half plot in Dublin, Ohio, 109 concrete ears of corn stand at six feet, six inches apiece—an agricultural community in transition. Artist Malcolm Cochran, created this field of statues in 1994 as a memorial for the now-fallow corn field that once occupied the land. On this site, Sam Frantz and his family had been a leading corn hybridizer from 1935 through 1963. It’s “not unlike a cemetery —and a surprising roadside attraction in the tradition of coffee shops that look like a giant cup and saucer or diners in the shape of hamburgers,” Cochran said in an email. Head to the Osage Orange trees at the west side of the location to learn more about the town’s agricultural history.
5) Egg—Mentone, Indiana
There isn’t a whole lot to see driving through north-central Indiana, until you get to Mentone: the self-proclaimed “Egg Basket of the Midwest” and home to what the town considers the World’s Largest Egg, a 3,000-pound concrete structure in a bank parking lot near the town’s center. The structure was most likely built in 1946 to promote the Mentone Egg Show.
6) Popcorn Ball—Sac City, Iowa
In 1995, Sac City, Iowa (locally known as the “Popcorn Capital of the World”) built the first of three giant popcorn balls—a 2,225-pound mound of syrup and popcorn. That same year, a team of Boy Scouts beat the city’s record and by 1997, the original Sac City ball was blown up at the Sac County Fair. But in 2004, Sac City went at it again when a local popcorn factory made a 3,415-pound ball, currently housed in a small building off of Highway 20. When the 3,415-pound record was beaten, in 2009, construction of the latest and greatest popcorn ball weighing in at 5,000 pounds began. Two hundred fifty-three volunteers gathered in Sac County to construct the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. (Ingredient breakdown: 900 pounds of popcorn, 2,700 pounds of sugar and 1,400 pounds of Dry syrup mixed with water). It held the record until this August when a group at the Indiana State Fair, built a 6,510-pound popcorn ball, beating Sac County’s- record by 1,510 pounds, but the Indian ball was pulled apart to feed livestock at the end of the festivities. Sac City’s ball remains the largest popcorn ball still intact.
7) Watermelons—Green River, Utah and Luling, Texas
If you want to see giant melons of the water variety, you’ve got two choices: the watermelon tower in Luling, Texas and the 25-foot slice of painted wood in Green River, Utah. The water tower in Texas presides 154 feet over a watermelon patch—a tribute to the local melon industry. Each year at the Watermelon Thump festival (named for the way you thump a melon to test its ripeness), locals enter the seed spitting contest or claim the “Thump Queen” crown. Green River’s melon is less like a tower and more like a parade float. The formerly motorized melon slice makes appearances during the region’s Melon Days festival each year. Both places claim to be the watermelon capital of the United States.
8) Pistachio—Alamogordo, New Mexico
In the middle of the southern New Mexico desert, along U.S. Highway 54, a 30-foot-tall pistachio stands as a monument to Tom McGinn, founder of McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch. “I wanted to erect a proper monument that would represent his enormous passion for the creation of a pistachio farm in the bare desert,” Tim McGinn, the founder’s son, said in an interview with the Alamogordo News in 2009. The giant nut is covered in 35 gallons of paint and is anchored by nine feet of concrete. McGinn based the design off of a nut hand-selected from his crop of pistachios.
9) Donut—Inglewood, California
Homer Simpson would go bonkers for this roadside sculpture built in 1954. You may recognize the massive pastry on top of Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood, California from Randy Newman’s video “I Love LA,” or from the film Mars Attacks. The drive-in style building, designed by Henry J. Goodwin in 1953 has several locations in the area—four of the original giant donuts survive, most of which were constructed with a 32 and one fifth-foot diameter. A fun thing about a giant donut: sometimes, you can throw basketballs through its center.
10) Artichoke—Castroville, California
Castroville, California, is the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Center of the World” and the 20-foot tall artichoke made of rebar and concrete built in 1963 by Ray Bei, founder of Ray Bei’s Giant Artichoke Restaurant and Fruit Stand, is a stunning reminder of the region’s main crop. A pit stop here offers artichokes prepared pretty much any way you can imagine, though fried is probably your best bet. The annual artichoke festival takes place in May to celebrate the Monterey Bay County’s famous food. Fun fact: in 1948—11 years before the festival began—a young starlet named Norma Jean, later known as Marilyn Monroe, was crowned the first Artichoke Queen in Castroville. The sash she wore is now on display in the Castroville Chamber of Commerce.
August 13, 2013
The science is pretty sound that carrots, by virtue of their heavy dose of Vitamin A (in the form of beta carotene), are good for your eye health. A 1998 Johns Hopkins study, as reported by the New York Times, even found that supplemental pills could reverse poor vision among those with a Vitamin A deficiency. But as John Stolarczyk knows all too well as curator of the World Carrot Museum, the truth has been stretched into a pervasive myth that carrots hold within a super-vegetable power: improving your night-time vision. But carrots cannot help you see better in the dark any more than eating blueberries will turn you blue.
“Somewhere on the journey the message that carrots are good for your eyes became disfigured into improving eyesight,” Stolarczyk says. His virtual museum, 125 pages full of surprising and obscure facts about carrots, investigates how the myth became so popular: British propaganda from World War II.
Stolarczyk is not confident about the exact origin of the faulty carrot theory, but believes that it was reinforced and popularized by the Ministry of Information, an offshoot of a subterfuge campaign to hide a technology critical to an Allied victory.
During the 1940 Blitzkrieg, the Luftwaffe often struck under the cover of darkness. In order to make it more difficult for the German planes to hit targets, the British government issued citywide blackouts. The Royal Air Force were able to repel the German fighters in part because of the development of a new, secret radar technology. The on-board Airborne Interception Radar (AI), first used by the RAF in 1939, had the ability to pinpoint enemy bombers before they reached the English Channel. But to keep that under wraps, according to Stolarczyk’s research pulled from the files of the Imperial War Museum, the Mass Observation Archive, and the UK National Archives, the Ministry provided another reason for their success: carrots.
In 1940, RAF night fighter ace, John Cunningham, nicknamed “Cat’s Eyes”, was the first to shoot down an enemy plane using AI. He’d later rack up an impressive total of 20 kills—19 of which were at night. According to “Now I Know” writer Dan Lewis, also a Smithsonian.com contributor, the Ministry told newspapers that the reason for their success was because pilots like Cunningham ate an excess of carrots.
The ruse, meant to send German tacticians on a wild goose chase, may or may not have fooled them as planned, says Stolarczyk.
“I have no evidence they [the Germans] fell for it, other than that the use of carrots to help with eye health was well ingrained in the German psyche. It was believed that they had to fall for some of it,” Stolarczyk wrote in an email as he reviewed Ministry files for his upcoming book, tentatively titled How Carrots Helped Win World War II. “There are apocryphal tales that the Germans started feeding their own pilots carrots, as they thought there was some truth in it.”
Whether or not the Germans bought it, the British public generally believed that eating carrots would help them see better during the citywide blackouts. Advertisements with the slogan “Carrots keep you healthy and help you see in the blackout” (like the one pictured below) appeared everywhere.
But the carrot craze didn’t stop there—according to the Food Ministry, when a German blockade of food supply ships made many resources such as sugar, bacon and butter unavailable, the war could be won on the “Kitchen Front” if people changed what they ate and how they prepared it. In 1941, Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food, emphasized the call for self-sustainability in the garden:
“This is a food war. Every extra row of vegetables in allotments saves shipping. The battle on the kitchen front cannot be won without help from the kitchen garden. Isn’t an hour in the garden better than an hour in the queue?”
That same year, the British Ministry of Food launched a Dig For Victory Campaign which introduced the cartoons ”Dr. Carrot” and “Potato Pete”, to get people to eat more of the vegetables (bread and vegetables were never on the ration during the war). Advertisements encouraged families to start “Victory Gardens” and to try new recipes using surplus foods as substitutes for those less available. Carrots were promoted as a sweetener in desserts in the absence of sugar, which was rationed to eight ounces per adult per week. The Ministry’s “War Cookery Leaflet 4″ was filled with recipes for carrot pudding, carrot cake, carrot marmalade and carrot flan. Concoctions like “Carrolade” made from rutabagas and carrots emerged from other similar sources.
Citizens regularly tuned into radio broadcasts like “The Kitchen Front“, a daily, five-minute BBC program that doled out hints and tips for new recipes. According to Stolarczyk, the Ministry of Food encouraged so much extra production of the vegetable that by 1942, it was looking at 100,000 ton surplus of carrots.
Stolarczyk has tried many of the recipes including Woolton Pie (named for Lord Woolton), Carrot Flan and Carrot Fudge. Carrolade, he says, was one of the stranger ideas.
“The Ministry of Food had what I call a ‘silly ideas’ section where they threw out crazy ideas to see what would stick—this was one of those,” he says. “At the end of the day, the people were not stupid. If it tasted horrible, they tended to shy away.”
Dr. Carrot was everywhere—radio shows, posters, even Disney helped out. Hank Porter, a leading Disney cartoonist designed a whole family based on the idea of Dr. Carrot—Carroty George, Pop Carrot and Clara Carrot—for the British to promote to the public.
Dr. Carrot and Carroty George had some competition in the U.S., however—from wise-guy carrot-chomping Bugs Bunny, born around the same time. While Bugs served his own role in U.S. WWII propaganda cartoons, the connection between his tagline, “What’s up Doc?,” and the UK’s “Dr. Carrot” is probably just a coincidence.