Some vegetables are ignored; some are abused. The carrot is taken for granted. Sure, carrots are a colorful prop for smart-aleck TV rabbits. Rabbits like carrots. They like them so much that carrot farmers put the floppy-eared creatures to work as pitchmen--the most recent being the bug-eyed "Luv" bunnies that ride around the Southland on the sides of carrot big-rigs.
But it's rare for humans, especially American humans, to love carrots above all other vegetables. We know they're good for our eyes. We also know that if we eat too many of them--or, more likely, drink too much of their juice--our skin will turn as orange as George Hamilton's.
But mostly, we know that they enhance the food we cook: Carrots make everything taste better. They give what cookbook writers like to call "aromatic support" to stews, soups, roasts and braises. Unfortunately, onions get most of the credit. One cookbook says of the carrot that it is the "inevitable ally" of the onion--we just assume the carrot is going to show up in beef stew, just as we assume our inevitable ally Canada will vote with us on U.N. resolutions.
Carrots are also useful as metaphors, especially if you're talking '80s-era foreign policy, as in, "Gorbachev offered the carrot of new Soviet proposals but brandished the stick of possible intransigence with scathing comments on U.S. insistence that unified German remain a member of NATO," and, "A policy that is all sticks and no carrots provides neither influence nor credibility."
And what about carrot sticks? Horses, mules and foreign countries think of them as treats. So do lots of moms and dads who pack them in school lunches (with the carrot's other inevitable ally, celery). Dieters like them as snacks (though not as much as they'd like a Ho-Ho). And there is a certain percentage of the population that eats carrot sticks just for the taste.
But this is not universal. It seems that among carrot eaters there are two factions: the raw and the cooked. Many carrot-stick eaters feel that cooking a carrot ruins it, turning its sharp earthy flavors into sugary mush. Others will eat a carrot only if it's cooked. It's the cooking that brings out the wonderful natural sweetness of a carrot, they say. (I side with the cooked.)
Of course, carrots weren't always sweet. They weren't even orange when they first turned up centuries ago--in Afghanistan, according to most historians. Those carrots were yellow, white or even purple. Orange carrots, like the ones we know, didn't show up until the 1600s, when Dutch vegetable growers selectively bred the roots for color. (Carrots were so rarely eaten in the 17th Century that English ladies used the greens like feathers to trim their hats and dress sleeves.) Common purple carrots, it was decided, made too much of a mess: Like beets, they bled all over the food they were cooked with.
Thanks to the Dutch, carrots not only make food taste better, they make it prettier too. Maybe this is why the carrot is just about the only vegetable that Americans will tolerate in dessert. (There's pumpkin pie, but it is orange--Calvin Trillin believes Americans will eat anything if it's orange.)
Food historian Evan Jones tracks the carrot cake in America to county fairs and bake sales--and to Texas home baker Viola Schlicting, who in the '60s became famous for her prize-winning new dessert, a variation of German carrot-nut bread. She topped hers with an orange glaze and used Texas pecans. Since then, carrot cake has become one of America's most popular desserts. We're told, in fact, that it's Chelsea Clinton's favorite dessert (she likes hers with a cream-cheese frosting).
At last, carrots, on the highest table in the land.
In his section on vegetables in "Simple Cooking," Richard Olney provides notes (shopping instructions, general cooking tips, words of appreciation) on almost every vegetable he considers. For the carrot, however, he apparently feels no explanation is needed; he provides one single, extremely delicious recipe for carrot pudding.
2 pounds carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
1/3 cup butter
Juice 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
Freshly ground pepper
Combine carrots, butter, lemon juice, salt to taste and sugar in large saucepan. Add just enough water to cover. Bring to boil and simmer, covered, about 1/2 hour. Then, over high heat, cook until liquid evaporates, stirring constantly with wooden spoon. Let cool 10 minutes.
Whisk together cream, eggs and salt and pepper to taste in separate bowl. Stir mixture into carrots. Pour into buttered baking dish and bake until surface is browned, about 35 minutes. Makes 4 to 6 servings.