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Curious - but -True Stories of Common Vegetables

How Carrots Won the Trojan War, Curious [but True] Stories of Common Vegetables, Rebecca Rupp, Storey Publishing,                     ISBN 978-1-60342-968-9

When storyteller-scientists write fascinating books on mundane subjects, suddenly everyone wants to know about them. Ask some people to read about the history of an edible plant and they might roll their eyes with annoyance; others might gasp in disbelief that interesting stories are associated with the plant food we eat. Here is a delightful little book on that very subject, written by a talented educator who understands the importance of delivering information in an entertaining and engaging manner.

The author has collected unusual and unheard of anecdotes about twenty edible plants. From her book, we learn not only about the impact of certain vegetables and fruit on historic events but also about the effect of these edible plants on the lives of prominent players in the narrative of our civilization. I found myself eager to finish reading about one vegetable, in order to discover what the author might reveal about another.

Think of a popular edible plant and Dr. Rupp has an interesting story about it, from how asparagus seduced the King of France, to how celery contributed to Casanovas conquests. Before discovering these nuggets of information, I did not know how peppers won the Nobel Prize or how an eggplant made a holy man faint. Most interesting, was to learn that lettuce could put an insomniac to sleep.

In the chapter titled “How Spinach Deceived a Generation of Children”, we learn that a scientist’s misplaced decimal point ascribed to spinach an iron content ten times higher than it actually has. Consequently, in the late 1920’s, when Popeye the Sailor gulped down a whole tin of this cooked vegetable, depression-era kids emulated his action, erroneously believing that eating spinach would make them stronger.

Oddly enough, as soon as I got into the book – and that happened immediately - I became as interested in the author as I was in the text. After all, who writes about the historical significance of carrots, anyway? And why? Who is this writer? How did she accumulate so much fascinating information about the influence of plants on human activity?

Rebecca Rupp holds a PhD in cell biology and biochemistry. She has written over a dozen books for children and adults, as well as hundreds of articles for magazines, including Country Journal, Early American Life, Mother Earth News, Natural History, and Utne Reader. In addition, she writes a monthly column for "Home Education Magazine".

By homeschooled her three sons, Dr. Rupp has first-hand knowledge that kids respond best to scientific information when it is presented in a manner that is fun, lively, and offbeat. To help her children keep their attention focused, she combined impeccable science with strange-but-true examples and exciting experiments and projects designed to reinforce important concepts.

One of her publications titled “Weather: A Book about Pink Snow, Fighting Kites, Lightning Rods, Rains of Frogs,Typhoons, Tornadoes, and Ice Balls from Space” is considered to be a breakthrough book for stimulating children’s interest in science. The author’s extraordinary attention to factual details, combined with a storyteller’s skill, is what turns the reading of “How Carrots Won the Trojan War” into a delightful experience. No, I cannot reveal the military secrets of this root vegetable. Interested readers will have to obtain a copy of the book to discover that information for themselves.

This review originally appeared at, an international online book review site.



Water Conservation and Raiders of the Lost Ark

At this time last year, anyone concerned about my whereabouts would have found me walking through a majestic wind and rain-carved canyon, heading toward the center of the ancient city of Petra in southern Jordan. This tourist and scholar’s destination is an architectural and archeological marvel, considered by the UN to be the Eighth Wonder of the World. Ancient sculptors created Petra’s city structures and roads by carving into red, solid, sand cliffs. They started at the top of the mountains and worked their way down, developing grandiose buildings, temples, and tombs. Even the rooms inside the buildings were carved out of the rock.

It had been no more than two weeks before our group’s arrival when the temperature here had reached 44 degrees Celsius, [that’s about 111 degrees Fahrenheit!] Luckily, by the time we got to Petra, the heat had dropped to a mere 35 degrees, [a welcoming 96 degrees]. Large amounts of bottled water, a wide brimmed hat, and a neck scarf filled with cooling, gel crystals kept body temperatures at a survivable level.

The Nabataeans, one of the most gifted people in Middle Eastern history, settled this area over 2200 years ago. Here, where 90% of the land is desert, they built a powerful commercial and political kingdom. At one point, the capital city of Petra may have housed 20,000-30,000 people. With sparse rainfall and extreme heat, the Nabataeans were forced to excel in water conservation in order to sustain themselves. As highly skilled water engineers, they irrigated the land with an extensive system of dams, canals and reservoirs.

The inhabitants of Petra treated rainwater as a precious commodity. Paths carved into the rock mountains are lined with narrow gullies that send rain toward underground cisterns. Furthermore, carved into the facade of every building are vertical troughs that direct rainfall into aquifers. Historians and archeologists believe that it is this sophisticated knowledge of the power of water that allowed the Nabataeans to prevail in this harsh climate.

A striking phenomenon of this wondrous site is the blending of architectural motifs from several ancient civilizations. Their expertise in the caravanning business exposed the Nabataeans to diverse cultures, a fact that explains why the facades of their buildings incorporate design elements from ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, and Assyria. Wealth had made that possible.They had enriched themselves not only from an exclusivity in distributing incense  - essential for pagan rituals -  but also by their mastery of the region’s trade routes, where they levied tolls, and from the wide range of luxury products that they handled.

This ingenuity of absorbing and interpreting the architectural themes of other cultures, resulted in the creation of one of the most dramatic ancient structures still standing. The glorious Treasury Building of Petra is so intriguing that it featured prominently in the iconic movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.

Most visitors to Petra ask what happened to such an ingenious, cultured, rich, and powerful, nation.Some believe that they were economically compromised by the decline in the use of frankincense and myrrh, when Christianity was introduced into the area.. Others believe that, when Islam became the dominant religion of the region, the need to maintain a separate national identity diminished and that most integrated into surrounding communities. Still others take a more pragmatic view, and point out that commercial caravanning became less profitable for them when trade routes shifted from the areas they controlled to Palmyra, Syria and when seaborne trade around the Arabian Peninsula expanded. As a result, during the fourth century CE,  the Nabataeans left Petra. The fact that archeologists have found very few valuables on site, leads them to believe that the withdrawal was an organized but unhurried process.

Our departure from Petra was also unhurried, but that was due to our exhilarating fatigue. It had been an experience not to be missed and all of us on this tour would do it again, in a heartbeat. -  It was that awesome.


Cultivating Wisdom -There's More to Gardening Than Growing Plants; a book review for

Gardening - Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom, edited by Dan O’Brien, Wiley-Blackwell  

Here is a gardening book unlike any other. If someone had told me that, with an overview of the philosophies that propelled civilization, we might arrive at a better understanding of the role that gardens have played in our history, I wouldn’t have believed it. And yet, here it is - a collection of essays to reminder us that there is more to gardening than just growing plants.

Wiley-Blackwell is the scholarly division of John Wiley and Sons. Under the guidance of editor, Fritz Allhof, Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Western Michigan University, the publisher has produced a series of books titled Philosophy for Everyone. Each volume in that series undertakes an overview of different topics essential to contemporary civilization. Subjects, ranging from motherhood to cycling and from Christmas to porn, are examined from the perspective of the erudite scholar.

Dan O’Brian, Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes University, is the editor responsible for this volume on gardening. He targets not only the green-thumb thinker but any reader who is fascinated by the historical evolution of civilization. In this multi-faceted collection of essays, all related to gardens and gardening, the contributing writers draw upon their knowledge and strengths in the disciplines of history, theology, archival studies, music theory, art history, anthropology and the classics.

A five-part book, it begins with a section titled The Good Life. This thematic umbrella allows Isis Brooks to discuss the rewards of gardening on a physical and philosophical level. Meghan T. Ray adds an article about the ethics of gardening in Ancient Greece and Rome, Mathew Hall questions the exclusion of plants from gardening ethics, and Helene Gammack examines historical trends in agricultural self-sufficiency.

Part Two, Flower Power, focuses on the strength of the garden as a cultural and a political statement. Jo Day considers the ancient gardens of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Crete and examines their function as symbols of political and spiritual power. Michael Moss scans the history of the British Empire from the vantage point of vegetable consumption, Laura Aurrichio writes about Lafayette’s garden in France, influenced both by British gardening methods and plants from America and Elizabeth A. Scott argues that allotment gardens helped stimulate the political activism of lower- income citizens in the UK.

In Part Three, The Flower Show, writers examine the subject of the garden-as-spectacle. Eric MacDonald discusses gardening and gardens as a source of enchantment while Ismay Barwell and John Powell take the reader on an intellectual journey. They submit that while gardening is an artistic expression similar to other plastic arts, it differs from them in one substantial way. Gardening presents the passage of time visually, in the same way that music does so audibly. Finally, Gary Shapiro surveys the philosophy that inspired the design and function of Central Park, in New York City.

The metaphysical garden or, The Cosmic Garden, is the focus of Part Four. Here, Robert Neuman explains how the gardens at Versailles conveyed an illusion of royal grandeur, Mara Miller examines a garden’s ability to structure time, and Dan O’Brian, following the ideas of philosopher David Hume, argues that, by functioning as a refuge away from deep thought and reflection, a garden can play a therapeutic role.

In the final section, The Philosophers’ Gardens, Susan Toby Evans writes about the gardens of the Aztec-Philosopher Kings, Gordon Campbell surveys the gardens of Epicurus and the golden age associated with his writings, and Anne Cotton analyzes Plato’s drama, Phaedrus, in which Socrates compares philosophical development to the growth of plants in the garden.

Reading this book has been an experience so enchanting, that I am eager to revisit each of the essays, to re submerge myself in their expertise. If one is a gardener, this is a publication reserved for cold winter nights or long plane rides; for the non-gardener, it is an engaging private symposium. One might also call it “variations on a theme of gardening”, enriched by diverse intellectual disciplines and unexpected perspectives of t´╗┐he contributing authors.