In “How Carrots Won The Trojan War” from Storey Publishing, author Rebecca Rupp tackles the totality of everything through the topical springboard of vegetables — even that potato on your plate has several tales to tell.
Rupp is a prolific author, with numerous titles and subjects ranging from homeschooling to meteorology to neuroscience, peppered with a number of well-regard novels for kids. Her background is in cell biology and bio chemistry, and she lives in Northern Vermont.
For her new book, Rupp investigates cabbage, eggplant, pumpkins, radishes and more. She started out with an alphabetical listing of all the vegetables she wanted to cover — and she got to do most of them, only cutting out a couple for space reasons.
“We lost okra,” she said.
For Rupp, it was an education in not only in science and history, but in psychology, especially when it comes to man’s drive to survive despite having to take in some of the nastiest … “One of the things that kept striking me as I was researching this book was how we didn’t starve to death before we got out of the Stone Age,” said Rupp. “Some of the stuff we initially cultivated was so unappealing. The earliest corn cobs were like the sides of pencil erasers. Cucumbers were ghastly little things, little tiny bitter with spines like porcupines. I can’t believe it occurred to anybody to eat this.”
Some vegetables offered a dearth of information — some less, but the actual facts packed a wallop that made them worth including. Most offered a nice mix that gave Rupp the opportunity to tackle the unexpected along with the more obvious investigations.
“Take onions — certainly you want to talk about why onions make you cry, why onions have that battery of nasty chemicals and whatnot — but every once in awhile there’s just a tidbit, there’s not much to it, but it’s just such a clever little factoid that I couldn’t resist keeping it. Roman gladiators were massaged with onion juice.”
One of the joys of writing the book for Rupp was discovering things that she didn’t already know, and some of that knowledge could get unusual, as in her discovery of the link between corn and vampirism.
“A couple of British scientists published this paper where they hypothesized that pellagra — that is a deficiency disease caused when too much of your diet depends on corn, in Europe might have something to do with the appearance of the European vampire legends,” said Rupp. “Pellagra has all of the symptoms that appear vampiric. People become very light sensitive, it’s a wasting disease, so you’re pale and you’re fading and you only come out at night. Vampires sprang to their minds. It made sense to me. Nobody knows if it’s true and Dracula just needed a niacin pill, but it’s something to think about.”
Rupp also unearthed various misconceptions about certain vegetables, facts that went opposite the accepted wisdom. How many times have you been told that cooking vegetables washes away all the nutrients?
“There’s a perception that raw is better, fresh out of the garden is the best, and then I had all that science that some vegetables have to be cooked before you get the full benefit of all the nutrients,” she said. “Like you get more nutrients out of tomatoes in tomato paste than you do a raw tomato.”
This is also the case for carrots, which, Rupp reveals, releases only 3 percent of their beta-carotene when raw, as compared to a whopping 40 percent when cooked.
Spinach is legendary — thanks to Popeye, mostly — for being a great source for iron. Granted no one thinks they are going to pump bullet-shaped muscles into their arms, but the sailor’s comedic exploits have served to fuel this misconception. Rupp says that she also came across a rumor that the entire belief was due to a decimal point error on an early scientific paper. That turned out to be not true, and spinach is filled with iron — but the truth is complicated by science. “There is loads of iron in spinach, it’s just that we can’t digest it,” Rupp said. “It’s kind of pointless. Most of it is called non heme iron, it’s not associated with a little organic molecule so we can’t digest it. The bulk of iron in spinach is inaccessible to people. He probably should have been having spaghetti for energy.”
Equally, there are some foods that never get enough credit — why the eggplant isn’t pushed as hard as blueberries for antioxidants is probably obvious, but still unfortunate.
Rupp also spends plenty of time not dissecting the vegetables scientifically, but historically and socially, that goes far beyond our impression of them on our plates. There is the much-maligned beet, which few care to eat but finds a divergence in their history when a German chemist figures out a way to use them as a sweetener that would transform the world through industry.
Meanwhile, the innocent celery had the gruesome misfortune of being utilized in the ancient Greek phrase, “He now has need of nothing but celery,” which meant the fellow was about to die. Equally unfortunate is the fact that it is prominent with psoralens, a photocarcinogen with a potential for causing skin cancer. It’s at low enough levels so as not to hurt humans, but no one appreciates a failed poisoner any more than a successful one — or the sick ones. Celeries with microbes causing sickness tend to have more dangerous concentrations.
It’s a multidisciplinary approach to talking about food, a suggestion that whatever is on your plate is accompanied by centuries of history that give it power far beyond appearance, smell and taste. Food is a major part of the human story, but also something with narratives of its own, and Rupp’s hope has been that readers beyond the foodie sphere would embrace the book as a springboard to knowledge.
“I was hoping that it was a book that would appeal to quite an audience — history buffs, science buffs, gardeners, foodies, cooks and just the plain curious,“ she said.
A veteran homeschooler, Rupp appreciates the concept of exploration as an educational plan — and has a concurrent view that the book would probably function well as a curriculum of sorts, largely thanks to the uncovering of narrative that takes the facts outside the realm of dry learning and into the tradition of rich lore — it’s how we retain information and Rupp, who has written about the way the brain remembers things, took this into account when crafting the work.
“It’s got good stories, but the solid stuff too, very much in terms of homeschooling, the story is so important,” Rupp said. “That’s the memory clinch. What you remember are these great stories and then you put all the facts together.”
It’s also a revelation for how information works — everything links to everything else and no final answers are ever possible when it comes to information. There is always a side route, and Rupp is happy to take as many as she possibly can.
“I love all those historical, scientific interconnections,” she said. “The fractal nature of the whole thing fascinates me, but in researching it, you inevitably have a lot more than you put in, so I usually do a huge amount of research and pare it down. I would’ve liked it to have sprawled even more, the story behind the story behind the story.”