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Garden in the City: The Bitter Truth About Carrots

By Patty Wetli | September 18, 2013 8:26am
 DNAinfo.com's resident urban gardener loves her carrots, even if they taste like soap.
Garden in the City: Carrots
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LINCOLN SQUARE — Picture a Venn diagram where one circle represents "what can be grown in a Midwestern vegetable garden" and the other circle represents "foods Patty actually likes." Where they overlap: carrots.

True story: When I was a kid, my mom would occasionally feel compelled to ask, "Have you been eating a lot of carrots lately? Because you look yellow."

I love carrots, really I do.

Since sowing seeds back in June, I've been waiting — patiently at times, impatiently at others — for the roots to mature. After prematurely pulling a few zygotes some time in late July, I've pretty much just left the plants alone to do their thing.

Until now.

I have to say, while carrots aren't the most exciting thing to grow, what with all the cool stuff happening out of sight underground, they are crazy fun to harvest — like plunging your hand into a grab bag where every prize is guaranteed to be something you've always wanted.

I planted two square feet of carrots and because I not only over-seeded but also refused, against the advice of Master Gardener Pete, to thin my seedlings, I have a ridiculous amount of roots to unearth.

The process goes something like this: Stick hand — gloved or not — into the soil at the base of a stalk of carrot-top greens. Feel around in the dirt for the circumference of the root. Grip and pull. Thump chest like Tom Hanks in "Castaway" and roar "I have made carrots."

Repeat.

It gets addictive, harvesting carrots. What'll the next one be? Long, short, fat, skinny, curved, straight? I'm dying to know.

I tell myself "just one more" and then yank two or three past my limit just to see what turns up. I did manage to resist the urge to pull the whole lot of them in one blissful frenzy, because then it would be like that moment when there are no more presents left under the Christmas tree and I would be sad.

It's only when I've come down from my harvesting high that the bitter truth about my carrots becomes apparent. They taste like soap.

"Well, did you wash them with soap?" husband Dave asks.

I realize I've proven myself quite idiotic over the past season of gardening, but no, my carrots don't taste like soap because I've coated them in Palmolive.

Blame something called terpenoids, which, along with sugar, is one of two compounds that determines a carrot's flavor. Sugar, obviously, lends sweetness. Terpenoids pretty much the opposite.

Naturally I googled "how to grow sweet carrots" after the fact, and immediately fell into an Internet wormhole.

Like a modern-day Alice, I landed not in wonderland, but someplace even better: the World Carrot Museum, which could only be improved upon were it a physical, as opposed to virtual, place. I would totally sign on as a docent, specializing in tours of the carrot cake exhibit.

At the World Carrot Museum, a handy FAQ provided the answers to many mysteries.

Turns out eating too many carrots really can give the skin a temporary tint. And yes, vomit does look like it contains regurgitated carrots, but those orange chunks are actually pigmented bile. Talk about your fun fact.

Do rabbits eat carrots? As a matter of fact, no. Bugs Bunny has led us all astray. In perhaps my favorite reprimand ever, the World Carrot Museum scolds pet owners: "Real rabbits don't talk, and they shouldn't be eating carrots too often either."

Regarding the matter at hand — which, as a refresher, was the sweetness of carrots — I came across a clue while reading up on baby carrots.

True baby carrots are harvested before the root matures — i.e., my little zygotes. The baby carrots that supermarkets stock are grown-up carrots bred to be uniformly long and thin so they can be chopped into three or four "baby" carrots per root. They're also bred to contain an increasingly high amount of natural sugars.

No way my homegrown carrots were ever going to compete against Big Agriculture's doped up roots.

But I could improve their flavor by employing a tool I'd long since exiled to the back of my least-used kitchen utensil drawer: the peeler.

According to a study conducted by Danish researchers, a carrot's bitterness is largely concentrated in its peel. 

I used to know this, back before my carrots came in resealable bags filled with perfectly rounded, completely denuded specimens.

So I gave my biggest, fattest root a shave and took a bite.

Tasted like carrot.