"Food is a cultural artifact," declared Paul Stepahin, an exhibit developer at the San Francisco Exploratorium. For the Exploratorium's Gastronomy event held on April 5, Paul gave a lecture on molecular gastronomy (the science of cookery), which delved into some of the heavy science behind the techniques laid out in the pages of the infamous Modernist Cuisine guide. But before that, he relayed the best food story I've ever heard to a lecture hall packed to near-double capacity with eager foodies. It was about the carrot.
More specifically, it was about why the carrot is orange. Most people know that the carrot's vivid pigment comes from beta-Carotene, an organic compound found in pumpkins and sweet potatoes as well as carrots. But that's not why virtually all carrots sold in grocery stores and farmer's markets are orange. Carrots can naturally grow in a range of colors, including purple, yellow and white. So why do we never, ever see those colors at the supermarket?
Carrots are orange because oranges are orange.
"Almost all citrus fruit is derived from a common ancestor that first evolved in southern China about 20 million years ago," Stepahin explained. "By the year zero, oranges in particular were known in India where they were known by the sanskrit word naranga. The prefix 'nar' I believe means aroma, and it should be known that back then oranges weren't eaten as food. They were just used for their aromatic properties."
The orange traveled west and was called the narang in Persia. When the fruit arrived in France, it may have been pronounced un naranj, which doesn't sound very different than un aranj. Linguists actually believe the "n" from the front of the word was lost due to confusion with the preceding indefinite article, "at which point the French presumably misassociated that first syllable with their word for gold, or, leading to the modern orange," Stepahin said.
"What this etymology tell us is that the color was named after the fruit, and not the other way around. If you go back far enough in the literature, you can find really weird passages like one from Canterbury Tales where Chaucer describes someone's complexion as being 'between a red and a yellow.' "
The fruit is responsible for naming the color, but we're still not to the reason virtually all carrots are orange. Things just get more mixed up from here.
A town in Southern France, Arausio, founded by the Romans in 35 BC, was classically pronounced "Aurenja." Predictably, that became "orange" once the French conflated naranj with or. When a man named William the Silent from Nassau inherited the rule in Orange in 1544, he became William of Orange. He led the Dutch in Revolt against the Spanish in the late 1500s, and they eventually won their independence in the form of the Dutch Republic.
"Back then the Dutch were known as carrot farmers," Stepahin continued. "You could get their carrots in white or yellow or purple. Then in the 17th century a breed of carrot was developed that had a lot of beta-Carotene and was orange. And the Dutch started growing this in great abundance in tribute to William of Orange to such a degree that almost all other forms of carrot had gone out of mass agricultural production...in this very roundabout way our carrots are orange because our oranges are orange, and they've been that way for political reasons."
And that's it: the bizarrely convoluted history of the carrot's abundance of beta-Carotene. Save it for a dinner party that involves carrots--or oranges, because, really, how crazy is it that the fruit preceded the word for "between a red and a yellow?"