The Untold History of Politics and Root Vegetables


Politicians have often played a role in the origin stories of vegetables. Among Charlemagne’s achievements was ordering the planting of the underrepresented Kohlrabi, also known as the German turnip; Frederick the Great of Prussia helped spread the gospel of the potato in Europe. But we often overlook the more symbolic role that vegetables, particularly root vegetables and tubers — which, by their very nature, are hidden beneath the surface — play in world affairs.

How might they be swaying the tides at any given time? How might they, like the very water in which they cook, bring tensions to a boil? If politics has a hand in the history of root vegetables, do these rotund delights not have a fleshy taproot in the history of politics? And the most important question of all: just how dangerous is this role, for all parties involved? Is the veggie a mere bystander to the great unravelling of the tapestry of history, or is it a crucial ingredient in the recipe for political intrigue? Will it be eaten, or will some luckless King or Emperor choke on it?

Wars have been named for tubers: The Prussians and Saxons dubbed the War of the Bavarian Succession Kartoffelkrieg, or Potato War — in part because there was little actual fighting, though theories also suggest that it earned its innocuous nickname because it was fought in potato fields, leading soldiers to consume large amounts of the earthy nubs. And the Great Famine was, of course, caused by the potato’s very centrality to European culture in the 1800s. Beyond these large-scale examples of tuber-causality, we’re interested in the role these underground lumps have played as influencers across political history.

Two tense news stories — the first about half an onion competing for Twitter followers with Donald Trump, the President of the United States (who, incidentally, is often compared to a carrot), and the second about the delivery of simply too many potatoes to a Wisconsin senator — have recently stratified America. Here, we take a further look into these potentially polarizing cases (and their root causes, as it were) of politics and root vegetables coming far too close for comfort — or, perhaps, ultimately, just close enough.

Eager Participants in the Democratic Process Mail Potatoes to Senator Ron Johnson

Heaven help the senator who refuses to hold a town hall, as that senator will almost certainly be on the receiving end of a plentiful portion of protest potatoes. At least, that’s the fate that befell Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson last month, when Cards Against Humanity creator and general shit-stirrer Max Temkin set up a website where for just five bucks, frustrated constituents could send an unadorned, uncooked, fully American potato to Johnson’s Milwaukee office with the simple plea: “Hold a town hall.”

Danger Level: Very low. The only danger is absconding your role in the democratic process.

Marie Antionette Adorns her Hair with Potato Blossoms

Despite notions of all the gaudy finery in which the scorned/beheaded Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, adorned herself, it just so happens that a lot of the time she was actually wearing potatoes. Or, at least their blossoms. Yes, the Queen of frivolity preferred the flower of the potato plant to less earth-tumor-attached plant life, and wore them in her hair. She also passed her aesthetic love of spud genitalia onto her husband, Louis XVI, who wore the flowers in his buttonhole, and the couple’s linking for the blossoms allegedly inspired a movement of potato plant-bedecked aristocrats.

Danger Level: Not particularly dangerous, except for people with pollen allergies/those who don’t want to sound historically ridiculous.

Finnish President Cracks Down on Wild Parsnips on Public Radio

In 2015, Finnish president Sauli Niinistö and his wife made a series of pressing calls to a public radio station. Once on air, the president — referring to himself simply as Sauli from Naantali, the town where he owns a summer getaway — made known his concern about the spread of wild parsnips in his holiday haven. According to Quartz, despite talks of turmoil over invasive parsnips, the call ended on a surprisingly optimistic note, with Niinistö turning his sights away from nature’s blanched subterranean phalluses to more progressive flora, saying:

It’s amazing sometimes when you see, say, a loosestrife growing next to some meadowsweet, to think that they’re both growing from the same soil, drinking the same water. So how can they end up so different? Nature is indeed wonderful.

Danger Level: Niinistö isn’t the first to warn of the threat of wild parsnips. The Christian Science Monitor wrote a disquieting piece that got to the root of the problem, explaining, “The belligerent ability of wild parsnip to spread and push out native plants is one reason that it’s so nasty. The other is that the plant’s leaves, stems, and flowers contain chemicals called furocoumarins that, in the presence of sunlight, cause blistering.” The dangers don’t seem to have amounted to much (no news of Naantali-specific blister outbreaks has made its way overseas, at least) — but that could, in part, be thanks awareness-spreading phone calls like these.

The Anti-Beet, Pro-Turnip Agenda of the Obamas

Michelle Obama smartly reimagined the DJ Snake/Lil John hit, “Turn Down for What,” as an homage to that purple-blushing beauty, the turnip, with the rhetorical question of a lyric, “Turnip for what?” The thought-provoking line was meant to advocate healthy eating, and used the question as a means of avoiding didacticism: it was up to the viewer to decide exactly what they’d turnip for. It clearly resonated with the youth: the video, made with the now-defunct Vine, was viewed over 50 million times.

Of course, the Obamas weren’t perfect; while their public image was charismatic and kind, some of Barack Obama’s policies were far from benevolent. While the turnip-positive spectacle was happening in front of everyone’s eyes, the then-President was silently declaring war against beets. Reportedly, beets were banished from the Obama White House garden, leading to vocal pleas for reconsideration from concerned food blogs.

Danger Level: Pro-beet activists lack visibility, so the wheels of the neoliberal turnip machine keep on turning; same as always, eh? Nice job with the status quo, dems.

Michele Bachmann Devours Celery By the Stalk

Who loves celery? A madwoman, that’s who. Former Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s well-documented ardor for the root vegetable — which, for the sane, has no place outside a soup stock or cradling a layer of Cheez Whiz — is as baffling as it is heartfelt. In a 2011 interview with The Brody File, Bachmann (billed as a 2012 “presidential contender”), the Bachster confessed, “Honest to God, my favorite food is celery. Straight up celery. I will personally consume the entire stalk of celery. At the Thanksgiving table I have the plate of celery in front of me. I know it’s strange. It’s my favorite food.” Oh, Michele. That’s no way to endear yourself to the American people. If you’re a GOP Presidential hopeful looking to prove that you’re a real human being and not a weird conservative paranoiabot, you need a taco bowl.

Danger Level: Moderate. What’s next — Brussels sprouts by the fistful? Asparagus by the bunch? This is a slippery slope.

Deep-Fried Yam Chef Shakes up Texas Politics

As Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy wrote in 2014, “Milton Whitley’s gift to Texas was called twisted yam on a stick.” Whitley, a teacher, former chef, and one-time Democratic candidate for the Texas House of Representatives, may not have won his bid for District 113 — he lost to incumbent Cindy Burkett, a Republican — but no man who’s had the privilege of presenting Oprah and Gayle with a homemade sweet potato pie on national television can call himself a failure.

Danger Level: I mean, the yams are fried in boiling hot oil, so….

Vespasian, Emperor of Rome, Pelted with Turnips

Vespasian didn’t let his lack of nobility stop him from becoming Emperor of Rome, which he ruled from 69-79 AD. But before he rose up the ranks, he served as a consul in Africa, much to the disdain of local residents, who expressed their displeasure with Vespasian and the tight grip he maintained on their budget by pelting him with turnips. Ron Johnson doesn’t appreciate how easy he got off.

Danger Level: When the fruit of the earth is repurposed as a weapon, it is a danger to us all.

City of Ottawa Declares Chemical War on Parsnips

Canada’s capital is known for its greenery, the lovely Rideau Canal, and a scourge of wild parsnips so pernicious that city officials were forced to declare chemical war in the spring of 2015. It had to be done: Apparently the strain of wild veggies was “burning the flesh of residents with its searing sap.” The active ingredient that causes a burning sensation is psoralen, exposure to which can result in a sunburn-like rash amongst those with particularly sensitive skin. And just hacking the turnip plants down just wasn’t going to cut it, because, per the Ottawa Sun, “This stuff grows ferociously.”

Danger Level: Significantly higher if you’re prone to sunburn — but really, none of us are free from flesh-burning parsnips until all of us are free from flesh-burning parsnips.

Steven Seagal Dines on Carrots with “Europe’s Last Dictator”

In the same way that one might cultivate a root vegetable, impressively bloated action star Steven Seagal cultivates relationships with some of Eastern Europe’s most unpleasant authoritarians. He’s a favorite of studly tyrants such as Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Russian strongman and absolutely-not-friend-of-Donald-Trump Vladimir Putin… and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, accused of being “Europe’s last dictator” by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. (His very presidential response: “Better to be a dictator than gay.“) Lukashenko is actively hostile to free speech and a free press, has threatened to “wring the necks” of his political opponents “as one might a duck,” and is often referred to as “daddy.”

Last year, we saw the camaraderie between Seagal and the man feared most by Belaruisan ducks on full display in the type of testosterone-fueled ritual that can only exist between two absolutely not gay male alpha-buds: foraging for fresh veggies in a field. Lukashenko fed Seagal the carrots of his land; watch in the video above, as he peels the carrot with his own humble presidential hands, and as the slender orange gift enters the action star’s oral cavity. After the virile bestowing of carrot, Seagal is handed a melon, which he clasps tightly in his famous, meaty paw. Something beautiful has happened — something that can only be understood by the most manly, the most powerful — and it is th root vegetable that has allowed such beauty to be.

Danger Level: Thankfully, the passing of carrot from Lukashenko’s hands to Seagal’s nibbling orifice went smoothly… but imagine for a second that it had gone otherwise. Imagine that Seagal had found the carrot repellent, or even simply sub-par. Would that have made him the “opposition?” Would he have been treated like one of the aforementioned duck similes? Or would it have been Lukashenko’s neck that would have been wrung? We’ll never know, but one thing is clear: these are dangerous men.

Half an Onion in a Ziploc Bag Threatens the Supremacy of the President

Half an Onion, aka @HalfOnionInABag, is a half an onion in a bag that’s attempting to undermine Donald Trump in the only feasible way one can do so: via Twitter. It has set out in a long, courageous search for Twitter followers, with the goal of besting Trump in the popularity contest of American politics (something that would, in all seriousness, probably send the real-life American President into some sort of meltdown):

Danger Level: It’s hard to think of a bigger threat to the Trump administration than Half an Onion; if this most noble of (half-)root vegetables proves itself more popular than Trump on Twitter, it will, under a little-known but 100% real clause of the Constitution dealing with Presidents and subterranean staple foods, be entitled to take his place. We can assume this onion, knowing the dangers of being such a vocal dissident, must be fiercely watching its own back/basal plate.