The roots of vegetable politics
Boris Johnson’s declaration last week that Brexit ‘can be good for carrots too’ caused a mixture of despair, mild amusement, and utter confusion. For those trying to get their heads around Britain’s Brexit-based future, this was hardly the ‘clarity’ they demanded. What few registered, however, was that Johnson had unwittingly tapped into a long history of the manipulation of this versatile vegetable for political ends.
The idea that growing vegetables nourishes the nation as well as the individual table is one that spans centuries. It is evident, for instance, in the seemingly innocuous Profitable instructions for the manuring, sowing, and planting of kitchin gardens (1599), by Richard Gardiner of Shrewsbury. Packed with advice for planting, feeding, and harvesting a variety of vegetables, this publication appears to offer no more a gauge of the political temperature than Alan Titchmarch’s How to Garden. Yet Gardiner is quite clear that his work resonates beyond the walls of the garden, asking his readers to ‘accept of this my good enterprise, in respect I desire the benefite of the Commonwealth herein, and is a speciall meane to helpe and reliue the poore’. He goes on to comment on ‘what great abundance of carets are brought by foreine nations to this land, whereby they have received yearly great summes of mony and commodities out of this land’. He lamented the failure of the people of England to labour for their own profit, but hoped that ‘this last dearth and scarsitie hath somewhat urged the people to proove many wayes for their better releefe, whereby I hope the benefit of Carret rootes are profitable’.
The 1590s saw a series of poor harvests in England, leading to rising food prices and increasing concerns about starvation and poverty in the face of falling wages – the ‘dearth and scarsitie’ referred to by Gardiner. This resulted in food riots in Kent and London, Oxfordshire, and elsewhere. Tied up in these riots were concerns about the export of grain for profit, and demands that grain exports be banned in order that food might be sold to the poor at a reasonable price. In the context of this, Gardiner’s encouragement to the people of England to grow carrots can be read as a means of resisting what he saw as the unfair export of resources out of England. Foreign merchants profited while England starved; carrots could be the solution.
350 years later the message that carrots could save a nation was being enthusiastically spread by the somewhat alarming ‘Doctor Carrot’, a character created during the Second World War as part of the ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign. Determined to reduce Britain’s reliance on foreign imports in a time of war, the government encouraged every Briton to do their bit to produce food on their native soil. The idea that carrots would promote good health was intertwined with the message that the collective home-production of vegetables would bring the nation one step closer to winning the war.
It is not just the production of carrots that has been utilised for political ends. Their very colour bears a political message. Before the sixteenth century, carrots were generally purple, white, or red. The emergence of the orange carrot in the seventeenth century has been attributed to the attempts of Dutch growers to show support for William of Orange, the leader of the struggle for Dutch independence. The veracity of this tale is uncertain, but by the late eighteenth century the Dutch Patriot movement was explicitly associating the orange carrot with the House of Orange.
There is some evidence that this association made it across to England with William’s great-grandson (William III, Prince of Orange) during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Supporters of the exiled Stuart monarchs after the revolution of 1688-9 sought to satirise supporters of William and Mary in printed pamphlets and images. One such publication gave a vitriolic description of advocates of the Revolutionary Settlement as ‘an Animal begot betwixt Enthusiastick Dulness, and Sophisticated Reason…His Rickety Head is swoln beyond a Symetrical Proportion, and was naturally adorn’d with Carrots of a right Sandwich Hew’. Sandwich carrots were a breed with a deep orange hue. It seems that this humble vegetable had become a potent political symbol.
Food is the most basic stuff of life. To eat something is to literally embody it; to deny someone food is to subdue them by rendering them weak. From Kolkata to Cambridge, the food on our plates expresses our culture, wealth, and indeed our politics. For all his blustering, this is something of which I am sure Mr Johnson is very much aware.
 Richard Gardinder, Profitable instructions for the manuring, sowing, and planting of kitchin gardens (London: 1599), ff. D2v-D3r. Many thanks to @stuartsonline for pointing out this reference.
 The character of a Whig, under several denominations (London: 1700), pp. 32-33.
In text: ‘Doctor Carrot guards your health’ – Health Gauge, via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/healthgauge/26174902704
Cover image: Carrots, via Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/en/carrots-veg-vegetables-colour-2608611/