Science Editor Roger B. Swain looks at the roots of human history
HERE IN NEW HAMPSHIRE, it’s not amber waves of grain that command our loyalty now—it’s root vegetables. With the sun slipping toward the solstice and the soil growing steadily colder, we are harvesting the potatoes, the carrots, the beets, the turnips and rutabagas. The parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, and horseradishes can be left in the vegetable garden all winter. The rest we save from freezing and the depredations of voles by digging and resettling them in the root cellar we have constructed beneath our basement’s outside entry. Held here in the dark, moist cold, they will serve us until spring.
Annuals have no need to store energy belowground. Fat roots, tubers, rhizomes, and corms characterize plants that are planning on at least a second year of life. The nutrients stored below-ground are intended to fuel next year’s flower stalk, or, in the case of the potato, a new generation of plants. Root vegetables are good keepers, given the right conditions, because they have evolved to wait out winter. Life in a harsh climate depends on imperishability.
Whether we opt for parsnips fried in a little butter, pickled beets, or the complete New England boiled dinner, we have the fresh ingredients. Our taste for these plant parts, though, may be millions of years old. Professor Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University, has proposed that underground storage organs of plants may have allowed our australopithecine ancestors some 5 to 6 million years ago to leave the rain forest with its year-round supply of fresh fruit and venture out into the harsher environment of the African savannah. Fast forward to a couple of million years ago, and the application of heat to these same roots may have so increased their digestibility and nutrient availability that they fueled the emergence of Homo erectus, the first true hominid. In the past, the rise of modern man has been credited to a diet heavy in meat. But it is just possible that cooked roots, not dripping steaks, were responsible for our larger brains, reduced jaw and tooth size, and smaller gut. This cooking would have meant saving food for later preparation as opposed to eating it immediately, and the necessity of watching over food until it had finished cooking may even have been responsible for the strong bonds that developed between men and women in early societies.
These ideas are admittedly highly speculative. “Oh Ma, not baked roots again!” may never have been uttered by a protohuman child. But there is no doubt that roots are far easier to cook than grains. No threshing, winnowing, or grinding required. Hot coals will do. Fast forward again to the last 10,000 years, after the invention of agriculture, and the merits of root crops are clearer still. Pillaging armies may kill livestock and carry off sacks of grain, but few will take the time to dig a field of potatoes.
Our language often belittles root vegetables. We speak of “small potatoes.” To disparage something is to “throw turnips.” We make fun of someone turning “beet red.” But it should also be noted that we still prefer the carrot to the stick.
Our modern seasonless diet offers fresh asparagus all year round, an endless summer of fresh red tomatoes. But these are not the foods that hold body and soul together. Those would be boiled potatoes, sweet potatoes, creamed turnips. Some remember these as the foods of poverty. The Irish potato famine still echoes on these shores. But we speak of steak and potatoes in one breath, for even great wealth cannot completely erase one’s ancestral tastes for food of the earth. The aisles of our local supermarket now offer an astounding array of roots not seen in New England a generation ago: manioc, jicama, bonianto, taro, malanga, water chestnuts, and lotus. These are all tropical plants whose underground parts are prized by the newest immigrants.
Those who choose to cultivate these bony New England soils often tire of the endless crop of stones, but never of the annual harvest of autumn’s roots. Once again, they will have a place of prominence at our Thanksgiving spread. But now, perhaps it is time to return them to Halloween. The first jack-o’-lanterns were European. The Irish celebrants of All Soul’s Day illuminated not pumpkins but turnips, potatoes, and rutabagas, hollowed out to hold a flame. Those who would search for the heart of gardening would do well to raise these noble roots, for the light they shed may fall on us. H