One of my favorite moments in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty movie is when we meet Prince Phillip and his horse. They are clearly companions with a strong history and friendship (as much as one gets between human and animal), but the honesty of seeing Phillip having to bribe his horse to go that one step further with the carrots is so relatable. Then when the horse gets too excited about the hunt for the source of the elusive song and dumps our brave prince in the stream, you get a giggle with the simple phrase “No carrots!” which has now become something quoted around our kitchen and farm…even by the kids who hate veggies! We have been known to go to some pretty great lengths to get more veggies worked into those vegetable-hating kids, which I know isn’t exactly a rare thing. After all, kids for generations have been complaining of having to eat this or that veg so surely this can’t be a modern concept only….can it?
A quick search in the food history annals showed a surprising lack of information readily available to that question. Even diving deeper (seriously, you don’t want to know how long I’ve been searching the internet for this information in particular), the specific question of “How long have people been hiding vegetables in baked treats?” really didn’t yield any direct answers. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a lot of info about carrots and baked treats with veggies in them! Like most anything else these days, there were a lot of differing claims regarding who originally made carrot cake….or even what the original recipe was. However, there has been a lot of research done about the history of carrots and their many uses. There’s even a website declaring itself as the Museum of Carrots. Amongst them (and the sources shared by the reputable ones), you find that originally carrots were grown in the Middle East and used first for their seeds only as a spice or for medicinal uses though this quickly shifted slightly and the bitter carrot roots would be used for the same purposes. A magical thing happened, though, when the younger and more tender carrots were found to be so sweet and they quickly became a staple for the Egyptian diet. The seeds being so helpful, they were already spreading east by the time the Egyptians were delighting in them toward India and China. They were also used medicinally as a kind of aphrodisiac (just look at some of the foods prepared for Caligula’s feasts), just as a side note. People were already beginning to mash the roots with honey and walnut oil which when simmered and cooled would solidify into a tasty treat. Such uses continued even as civilizations began shifting and moving heavily north into Europe. Sugar being scarce, folks turned to such things as flowers, fruits, and of course sweet vegetables…including the prized carrot. Since carrots grow so much faster and more plentifully, they were available for more of the year than their counterparts and in many ways more useful since by the 14th century they’d learned you can use the entire plant. So the lists of recipes and treats that were appearing grew according to each culture’s regional tastes and traditions evolved making carrots a staple. (Examples include such things as a French stuffed carrot, a British carrot pie (similar to today’s American pumpkin pie), steamed and served similar to a plum pudding, etc.) Recipes continued to evolve, incorporating the new inventions and ingredients such as leveners. Even the carrots themselves evolved, with some human encouragement, and became the orange color we’re all so accustomed to today (try googling “when did carrots turn orange” and see what the clever Dutch did in the 17th century). These cooking traditions moved with the people crossing the Atlantic to the “new world” and you begin to find that while carrots remain a staple, folks would continue to experiment with ways to satisfy their sweet tooth even when sugar was scarce and they began to incorporate things like zucchini and pumpkin. Yet the carrot was still going strong and in 1827 we find the first published form of today’s Carrot Cake in The Art of French Cookery by AB Beauvilliers.
This gets us up to the last century. While recipes and food traditions had continued to evolve, the practicality of the carrot that had been delighting human and horse alike was still going strong. The sweetness, ease of growth, and plentiful harvest combined into a beautiful convenience with the vegetable also incorporated so much of the nutrients humans need that when WWI and WWII hit they became more important than ever particularly for Great Britain. WWI saw severe food shortages for those not living on the front lines, and everyone was rationing food both for humans and their horsey companions. This was the first emergence of the UK (and later the American) government heavily encouraging home gardens meant to grow as year-round as possible and with multiple crop harvests each cycle including the introduction of garden allotments. Then in WWII, not only did they return to the garden allotments (or “Victory gardens”) but carrots specifically became a tool used by the military propaganda machine to hide the invention and use of radar by declaring their pilots were suddenly succeeding so much more because of the high amounts of carrots in their diet (and started a worldwide myth at the same time). One starts finding recipes for carrot cake in newspapers even as carrot fudge is making the rounds as gifts….and I can just see Prince Phillip’s horse trying to nose that one around! While we don’t really see any carrot fudge making the rounds at Christmastime, carrot cake got a huge hype as a “guilt-free, health food” in the 80’s. Most folks have recognized that the recipes they get from grandma aren’t really health-food label worthy, but I haven’t met too many folks not excited when it makes its way to the table for Sunday dinner even in the 2022’s.
So now it begs the question: are you (your kids, or even your horse) enough of a fan to dive in on some carrot cake experiments? While that gorgeous white-with-black horse isn’t precisely nickering at my door, that just means that our circus here gets to enjoy the carrots more and the next jump at all of this is going to mean some cakey-goodness coming! Are you ready?