The history of agriculture has its deepest roots in roots. You could say the very first agricultural tool was a digging stick used to unearth roots. This later evolved into the hoe and plough. Root vegetables have been part of our diet throughout human history. If early humans were anything they were hungry. Getting to those edible swellings produced by plants provided a reliable source of energy, a food that satiated and warmed the inner, middle organs of the body.
So how do villains enter into the picture? Typically by stereotyping what root eaters represented. As agriculture advanced and became more successful and foods more sophisticated root vegetables were mostly eaten by the poor peasants. In Old French, the villiens, meaning a low born rustic, were commonly the farm servants bound to the lord of the land. They worked hard and had a miserable life. They were seen as lean, dirty and wretched looking. No one of higher breeding wanted anything to do with them. From this early definition the word evolved into what we now know as a villain.
Turnips were the most important food to the Romans. Turnips were being cultivated as long as 5000 years ago. Before the potato came along turnips were the staple root vegetable. Parsnips were popular with ancient Greeks and Romans and often eaten as a dessert with fruit and honey. Rutabagas are a cross between cabbage and a turnip. All are part of the mustard family, the cruciferous vegetables.
Root vegetables are found throughout the world but do their most vigorous best in hot and humid countries. The topsoil in tropical lands is generally thinner and easier to dig into. Many of the cultures in these lands relied heavily on particular root crops for their main sustenance. Cassava, taro, sweet potato and yams come to mind. In South America over 700 kinds of potatoes are known to grow.
Root vegetables are the enlarged energy storage organs of plants. The energy is in the form of carbohydrates. Roots are a general term and include tuberous roots; sweet potato and cassava. Corms; taro and water chestnut. Rhizomes; turmeric, ginseng and ginger. Tubers; yam, sun choke and potato. Bulbs; garlic, onion, fennel and shallots. Roots; beet, carrot, burdock, dandelion, radish and parsnip.
Root crops grow best in deeply cultivated, loose soil. They should follow a heavily composted rotation such as brassicas. Too much nitrogen and too rich a soil cause abundant top growth and not enough energy going into the underground growth. Almost all root crops require a long growing season.
Carrots are a favourite of almost everyone. What you might not know is that only 3% of the Beta-carotene in raw carrots is released during digestion but is increased to 39% by pulping and cooking. When you think about it a lot of root crops are really not that tasty or even edible until you cook them in some form. Due to the high starch content they require heat to bring out the sweetness and flavour of them.
Soon I will be harvesting the first of the season’s “villienous” crops and as I am both lord and servant of my land I won’t be insulted as I enjoy my rustic fare.