Hand Finished Carrot Cake

Brand: Lidl Deluxe

Cost: £1.49

Found at: Lidl

            The more I learn about the Middle Ages in Europe, the more I realize that it was an absolutely lawless time in the history of food. Suddenly, you had all the spices coming in from the crusades with no sense of how best to use them. You’ve got a rich upper class that is down to try just about every animal, vegetable, and mineral under the sun. Cookbooks are just starting to appear but they are still largely collections of moral essays interspersed with outrageous advice – not that that matters very much to a population that is largely not literate. Of course, it would be wrong to make generalizations about a culinary history that spans a thousand years and an incredibly wide range of social structures… but looking back from the biased position of the present, I can’t help but feel that it was truly the Wild West of cooking.

            I’ve been thinking about carrot cake a lot lately – wistfully pining for a comfort food from my youth during this unusual time. And as I’ve been craving it, it has occurred to me how odd the concept of a carrot cake actually is. It’s not as if the carrot does much heavy lifting – a carrot cake seems to be just a spice cake with extra color. (Or, if you’re me, it’s just a vehicle for cream cheese frosting.) I could not imagine how such a desert could have come about – who looked at a carrot, covered in dirt, and thought to themselves: ‘Put this in a cake!’

            Medieval people. When in doubt, it’s always Medieval people.

            In fairness to them, there is more logic to this choice than it seems. Carrots were used as a sweetener when sugar was rare, and so it made perfect sense to sweeten the loaf with a few root vegetables. And as we’ve moved into an era of bountiful sweetness, the carrot has hung on like a vestigial organ: after all, it makes no sense to make a carrot cake with no carrots. Rationing and a Great Depression certainly helped to bring it back into vogue, but it had been around long before that, popular as a familiar treat wherever carrots are grown. Like many of the Medieval holdouts, we eat it now, not because it makes clear logical sense, but because we’ve always eaten it. It sticks around for the very reason I went out and bought one yesterday: because it is a comfort food. Because even as we modernize, globalize, and learn to use spices in sensible manner, we will always crave the foods we grew up on, no matter how odd they may now seem, now.

           And it’s a solace to think that, as I sit here eating cake for breakfast, I am yet another link in a long line emotional eaters, seeking comfort from an uncertain world. And not just making poor dietary choices.

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