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Ponder the Antiquity of Fruits and Vegetables

The modern carrot is available in many sizes, colors, and flavor profiles thanks to thousands of years of plant breeding. Photo by Kelly Thomas.

Fruits and vegetables have undergone various forms of domestication for thousands of years. Throughout this time, selective breeding of wild forages has allowed humans to develop crops with many desirable traits, such as increased size, higher sugar content, more nutrition, and brighter colors.

If you ate a carrot 5,000 years ago, you would be in for a surprise. First, it would not be orange. Instead, it would be white or purple, and would taste very bitter and be very small. We think wild carrots were first cultivated around 1,100 years ago, but that it took another 600 years to develop carrots that are not only available in white and purple, but also yellow, orange, and even red.

Sweet corn 9,000 years ago was a thousand times smaller, and barely edible, tasting more like a raw dried potato than corn, with only a few hard kernels per ear.

When you trace back the history of fruits and vegetables, you not only see many changes taking place through human intervention, but also many rituals, beliefs, and superstitions along the way. Take the mighty onion, for example. Did you know that Greek athletes in the Ancient Olympic Games would eat pounds of raw onion, drink the juice of onions, and rub onions all over their bodies before competing?

Roman generals believed garlic gave soldiers courage and strength, so they planted whole fields of it in areas they conquered, believing this transferred bravery to the armies. According to ancient Egyptian records, the Pharaoh gave the Egyptian slaves who built the pyramids garlic daily, along with their meager rations of beer and flat bread, as a means to increase strength and endurance. By today’s standards, it is believed it cost the Pharaoh two million dollars to keep the slaves supplied with garlic.

The Aztecs domesticated tomatoes around 500 BC, but they were not introduced to Italy until the 16th century. Even then, it took Italians another 250 years to embrace the tomato, as this member of the nightshade family was – understandably – feared to be poisonous. Can you imagine your pizzas and spaghetti without marinara?

Cucumbers originated in India, where their domestication started more than 4,000 years ago. They were traded to the Middle East and Europe about 3,000 years ago, and were even mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In Ancient Rome, Emperor Tiberius, who reigned briefly from 14 to 16 AD, demanded that he be served cucumbers daily. In the winter, his gardeners had to grow cucumbers in mobile wooden frames to protect the plants and expose them to the sun.

So the next time you enjoy the crunch of a bright orange carrot, sink your teeth into a chunk of hot garlic bread, or nurture your prized heirloom tomatoes, reflect back on just what it took our ancestors to get to the fruits and vegetables we relish today.