On Carrots…. and on John Stolarczyk, creator and curator of The World Carrot Museum
December 10 is Carrot Day in Ohio – why?
Today, December 10, is Carrot Day in Ohio. This is not, refreshingly, a mere marketing gambit. This particular celebration originated in the early ’70s when Barb Bendler (now Barbara Gannon, aka The Carrot Princess), then a sophomore in Palma, Ohio, went to her band practice bearing carrots for her fellow band members. The bringing of carrots became a custom, and, through offices of an enthusiastic exchange student, it became a custom which spread to other countries, even if not yet across the pond.
About the World Carrot Museum
I know this, and many other pieces of serendipitous information, thanks to a visit to The World Carrot Museum, the most authoritative site on the subject in existence. Within its extensive contents lies all the information that any normal person might seek – histories, botanical and social; in-depth descriptions of the health benefits; cultivation methods. There’s also much to please readers looking for the more unusual – a ‘hot news’ post for example about the discovery of the full carrot genome – or the collection of Guinness World Records for carrots and tips for growers to try break those records.
For Saucy Dressings, which styles itself as ‘the eccentric guide to stylish cooking, The Carrot Museum is a veritable El Dorado. How had this combination of an Encyclopedia and Museum come about – a true labour, not just of love, but of passion?
How did the World Carrot Museum come to be established?
The site is the creation of John Stolarczyk from the UK, a retiree from a local government legal services department. “My family and I enjoy travelling, and everywhere we go we visit castles, churches and other points of interest. It seemed to us that we had visited museums which contained collections of just about everything, such a toilet seats, horseshoes, playing cards etc; even something as innocuous as the humble carrot could become the subject of a successful exhibition. Could we think of anything that hadn’t been lovingly collected and displayed?
And, yes, come to mention it, we’d never seen a museum of carrots”.
Like a mountaineer to a mountain, John was drawn to the challenge of filling the void.
The new collectors are internet-based information collectors
Why? The subject matter is of course important, and carrots are good for you, but John is also, to my way of thinking, an example of an internet-enabling beneficent phenomena, the modern day collector. Traditionally collectors have put together structured sets of physical objects – anything from Old Masters to traffic cones or even to the memorabilia in The Belgian Frites Museum.
These days sometimes the physical and the virtual are combined – as for example at Steenbergs, where the impressive warehouses filled with hard-to-source herbs and spices are matched by the authoritative, information-stuffed website that supports the business. The World Carrot Museum is the same mix of the physical and the virtual. The site offers a mass of information and John has also collected over 1500 carrot ephemera which he displays at shows and schools.
The fundamental aims of The Carrot Museum
“At the outset we thought it would be the ideal way to learn about web design and, at the same time, create something unique, interesting and worthwhile” explains John, “my fundamental aim was to inform, educate and amuse”. The museum now bills itself as ‘The first virtual museum in the world entirely devoted to the history, evolution, science, sociology and art of carrots’.
So in 1996 The Carrot Museum was born, comprising just a couple of short pages and giving a brief history and nutritional guide. Today there are over 200 pages, and average monthly visitor numbers top the three thousand.
The site prides itself in being not for profit – it sells nothing and carries no advertising.
Examples of the content
The Museum is constructed in seven main sections – History – Wild Carrot – Carrot Today – Nutrition – Cultivation – Recipes/cooking advice – Trivia.
The best way to navigate the vast amount of information within the sections on the site is via the interactive floor plans. The virtual Carrot Museum is a three storey building, with my favourite floor being the top one.
Here you can visit, for example, the carrot café which contains a carrot recipe for every letter of the alphabet including the ‘E’ recipe for Ecstasy Carrot Soufflé, and an ‘X’-rated recipe for carrots in flaming tequila.
Remaining on the top floor you can meander through into the Purple Carrot Room – did you know that the original colour of carrots was purple (the story that they were turned orange to honour William of Orange is probably apocryphal)? Or that a very unusual heritage carrot with a purple skin and a yellowy/orange heart is grown around the Spanish village of Cuevas Bajas? I thought not.
Then you can wander through into the art gallery. The Museum contains a comprehensive collection of carrots in all kinds of imagery.
Some of these works of art proved very useful to plant biologists who were trying to identify old species and distinguish the individual colours (there are six!). The only records were in contemporary paintings such as the exquisite works by Dutch masters like Arnout de Muyser and Pieter Aertsen.
However some of these paintings have also been erroneously used as evidence that the Dutch were the first to develop orange-rooted carrots. John found it hard to believe that it was claimed that there was no orange-rooted carrot recorded before the 1500s. After exhaustive research he finally found an image of an orange-rooted carrot in an ancient manuscript dated 512 AD which clearly pre-dated the commonly held supposition that orange carrots were developed in the 15th century. This led in 2011 to the publication of an article entitled The Carrot History and Iconography in Chronica Horticulturae, a well respected academic journal – which was well received and further referenced by subsequent scholars.
The connections made on the site
“What started out as a bit of whimsy” John concludes, “turned into a very absorbing hobby which has brought me in touch with lots of interesting people around the world.”
It’s an experience mirrored by many other virtual site creators, as well as my own – just looking down the list of interviews and guest contributors on Saucy Dressings, I remember every one being engaging and stimulating, all people I would never have come into contact with if it hadn’t been for the blog.
The Carrot Museum includes a section on carrot collectors – “I collect collectors” says John, and it seems there’s no end to the ‘carrotobilia’ that can be collected: salt and pepper pots, bags, plates, ties, costumes, tiles, jewellery, tattoos, and even, appropriately for this time of year, Christmas decorations. So the site offers an additional benefit – it’s become the focus for a global community of carrot enthusiasts.
John insists The Carrot Museum is a passion, not an obsession. “When not digging deep for carrot information” he quips, “I enjoy long-distance hiking, local history and a drop of red wine”.
But he opens his bottle of wine with a bespoke, carrot-shaped corkscrew which he had specially commissioned. Currently he tells me he’s visiting the USA, “on carrot business”, and he’ll be travelling back next year for The International Carrot Conference (yes there is one, it’s held in California). Asked about his aims for the future, he tells me he is in the process of writing about book about how carrots helped win the Second World War and says he wants to visit every carrot festival in the world.
So all the evidence points to a person who is clearly very enthusiastic about his work, also undeniably exuberant and certainly eccentric.
Some of John’s views on carrots
“The carrot is one of the most versatile and healthy vegetables in the world. They can be consumed raw or cooked, used sweet or savoury dishes. They make a fantastic soup and a great juice. My preferred carrot to eat? I like the milder, but sweeter flavour of yellow carrots but frankly every carrot is superb and the best one is the one you are just eating.
John also points out that many people don’t know that you can eat carrot greens, and they’re excellent. and yes, there is a page in the Museum on that too! This is mainly because the greens are otherwise usually thrown away. The best use is in a soup or a pesto.
Recipe for World Carrot Museum Experimenter’s Pesto
Have some fun with this one trying out different types of cheese and nuts – but always use the green carrot tops. This pesto is great on bruschetta, or tossed through pasta, stirred into a soup, or mixed with mayo or yoghurt in a wrap or sandwich, or as a dressing.
- Green tops from one bunch of carrots (from about 450g/1 pound of carrots)
- Up to 2 tbsp olive oil (to get the consistency you like) or other oil of your choice
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 handful of un-processed nuts (could be walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, cashews, pistachio – or a mixture, NOT salted!)
- 2 tspn basil (dry) or handful of fresh basil leaves – preferred.
- 1 ounce of cheese (again to your taste – cheddar, parmesan etc)
- (optional) one hot pepper
- Place the carrot tops in the bowl of a food processor with the garlic, and nuts. Add 1 tbspn of oil and process. Finally whizz in the pepper if you want the pesto with a kick.
- Add more oil and process till you get pesto-like consistency. More oil to be more fluid. less for more crunchy.
- Add a hint of pepper to season.