Now in Your Grocery Store: Are Purple Carrots Genetically Modified?

.Purple carrots are relatively new to our tables here in North America. But they actually have a very long history in the rest of the world. Like the ubiquitous orange carrots we already know, they are high in beta-carotene and vitamin A. The purple colour comes from anthocyanins, the same phytochemicals that give blueberries and red cabbage their colour.

Purple carrots are noted for their role in weight loss. They are also high in fiber, and so are good for your heart health. The antioxidants in purple carrots may also help to prevent heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Are purple carrots genetically modified? Learn the history of carrots and their rainbow of colours. | #24CarrotDiet | GMO | purple carrot juice
Purple carrots are new to our markets, but they have a long history in the world


Where Do Carrots Come From?

Carrots originated in the Middle East about 5000 years ago. They first grew in Persia, which today is parts of Iran and Afghanistan. Early carrots grew wild, just like Queen Anne’s Lace (our wild carrot) does in many places today. Many of these wild vegetables were purple carrots.

People once used just the leaves and seeds of carrots. The roots were bitter and woody, and not nearly as substantial as today’s carrots. But carrot plants were desirable. As carrots spread throughout Arabia, Africa, and Asia, people began to cross different varieties with one another. This breeding improved upon the wild form and eventually gave us the sweet, crunchy root that we know today.

The ancient Egyptians prized purple carrots so much that they buried their Pharaohs with them. Carrots travelled from Egypt to Greece, and then to Rome. Carrots first appear in writing in Greece. Athenaeus wrote about them around 200 C.E.

Our word “carrot” ultimately comes from the Greek καρωτόν (karōton,) which itself derives from the Indo-European root *ker -, “horn.” So the name we’ve inherited for this vegetable describes its shape. The earliest carrots often branched into two or more forks. So they may even have looked like a pair of horns.

Are Purple Carrots Genetically Modified?

No, purple carrots are not genetically modified. In fact, naturally purple carrots are the earliest varieties of this root vegetable. They grew wild before people started to domesticate them.

Orange carrots didn’t exist in the beginning. But there were yellow carrots, in addition to the purple carrots. White and red carrots came along a bit later. All these colours have been growing consistently, somewhere in the world, since about the Middle Ages. The orange vegetable we eat today appeared fairly recently in the history of carrots.

Purple carrots were grown in Persia, Arabia, and North Africa, at least as far back as the 900s. They spread to Spain in the 12th century, and to Italy and China in the 13th century. By the 17th century, purple carrots had reached Japan as well.

Purple carrots have been popular in parts of Europe for years, but they are only beginning to show up in North America. You should be able to find purple carrots at some farmers markets, and seeds for growing purple carrots are available from most seed catalogues and nurseries. As more consumers become familiar with purple carrots, this will create a demand for the vegetable. We will begin to see purple carrots in grocery stores as that demand influences growers for the organic produce market and then later the conventional vegetable market.



Are Carrots Genetically Modified to Be Orange?

I was watching a video about purple carrots today, and the narrator said that the early purple and yellow carrots were genetically modified to make them orange. This is simply not true.

The World Health Organization definition of genetic modification says that it happens when “the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” The first genetically modified organisms were produced in the early 1970’s. The first genetically modified food to receive approval for sale was the Flavr Savr tomato, in the United States during the 1990s.

Orange carrots were first seen around the 16th or 17th centuries, when most Europeans were eating white, yellow, or purple carrots. Some combination of domestication and natural selection led to an orange carrot, probably as an improvement on the yellow carrot. This new carrot became popular in Holland because of its colour. Dutch farmers grew it in honour of William of Orange, and are responsible for stabilizing the cultivar over the next century or so.

Now the orange carrot is the one much of the world thinks of whenever we say, “carrot.” As this happened centuries before the advent of genetic modification, it’s impossible that the first orange carrots were genetically modified.

Do Purple Carrots Taste Different?

In the video above, personal chef Pat Mulvey says she can taste a subtle difference between carrots of different colours. According to her, the darker carrots have more flavour, while the lighter coloured carrots have a more subtle taste. I’m not sure most of us would be able to notice the difference.

I have grown purple carrots alongside red carrots, orange carrots, and even yellow and white ones. I didn’t find any significant difference in the taste of the carrots, whether we ate them raw or cooked. Purple carrots taste pretty much the same as the orange ones you’ve been eating all your life. Though of course, if you’re buying them from your local farmers market carrots of any colour will taste more fresh than grocery store carrots!

Are Carrots the Only Purple Root Vegetable?

Purple carrots are not the only root vegetables that grow in that particular hue. There are a number of other purple root vegetables, including purple sweet potatoes and a few purple varieties of the usually white potato. There are also purple radishes and purple kohlrabi. And a type of purple yam popular in the Philippines, ube, currently has a huge presence on Instagram.

Growing Purple Carrots in Your Garden

There are several different varieties of purple carrots that you can grow in your garden. A number of other carrot cultivars also exist in hues of white, yellow, red, orange, and even purple so dark it looks black.

Many of the newer coloured carrot varieties have fun names, often inspired by an outer space theme. We have experimented with a mix of carrots that includes ‘Lunar White,’ ‘Solar Yellow,’ ‘Cosmic Purple,’ and ‘Atomic Red’ varieties. These mixes are often sold as “Kaleidoscope Carrots” or “Rainbow Carrots.”

Some purple carrots are purple all the way through. Others are purple carrots, orange inside. There are even purple carrots that are white or pale purple inside. If you have a preference for one or the other of these types, check before you choose your purple carrot seeds. Most seed catalogues will show an image of the cut carrot, or will mention if the core of the carrot is orange or white instead of purple.



Pure Purple Carrots

  • Black Nebula’ Carrot: Grows very dark purple carrots that look almost tie-dyed when cut. This variety has very high levels of anthocyanins, and retains its colour when cooked. If you juice this carrot and then add a little lemon, the juice will turn bright pink. This rare Imperator type carrot is sometimes used to make purple dye. The purple carrots grow quite long, but one listing suggests they are best picked when only 10 cm (4”) long. The leaves and flowers of these purple carrots are tinged with purple. How cool is that? Days to maturity: 75-80.

  • Deep Purple’ Carrot: This is one of the only pure purple carrots available. The colour is very dark, almost black, and doesn’t generally fade with cooking. This Imperator type carrot grows to a length of about 17-20cm (7-8”) but some catalogue listings say they can grow to almost twice that length. This is a hybrid variety. Days to maturity: 75-80.

  • Gniff’ Carrot: These short purple carrots are extremely slow to grow. They are a very rare landrace from Switzerland with an amethyst purple exterior and a white to violet core. The carrots are very striking when cut lengthwise. They only grow to about 10 cm (4”) long, and are traditionally used for pickling in vinegar and olive oil. Days to maturity: 130–140.

Purple Carrots with Orange Inside

  • Cosmic Purple’ Carrot: This is a Danvers type carrot, meaning it’s a tapered carrot about 15-20 cm (6-7”) long. Fiber in carrots of the Danvers type is apparently high, and the carrots are good for longer storage. Cosmic Purple carrots were developed by Dr. Philipp Simon and the USDA Agricultural Research Service team in Madison, Wisconsin. The carrots have an orange core. Their purple colour doesn’t fade when cooked. Days to maturity: 60.

  • Purple Dragon’ Carrot: This is another Danvers carrot. Purple dragon carrots are purple on the outside, with a core that is yellow to orange in colour. Their taste is supposed to be slightly spicy. These purple carrots are open pollinated. Days to maturity: 70-75.

  • Purple Haze’ Carrot: This hybrid carrot was an All-American Selection winner in 2006. It grows purple carrots, orange inside. These Imperator type carrots are 25-30cm (10-12″) long, tapering to a point. The colours are brilliant when the carrots are raw, but the purple fades when cooked. Days to maturity: 70.

  • Other purple carrots include ‘Beta-Sweet,’ ‘Black Spanish,’ ‘Purple 68, ‘Purple Dutch,’ and ‘Purple Elite’.




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Purple carrots are loaded with carotene and anthocyanin
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Rare Fruit Hybrids: What Do You Get When You Cross a Plum with an Apricot?

Fruit trees complement a vegetable garden beautifully. They add height to your garden and provide visual interest year round. In spring, the buds of fruit trees emerge before many of your vegetable plants have germinated. Sweet blossoms attract pollinators to your garden and draw you outside to enjoy their luxurious scent. In summer’s heat, both humans and plants can appreciate the shade provided by fruit trees.

Planting a fruit tree in your yard is a bigger undertaking than planting a row of radishes or lettuce. But it is well worth the investment if you want to have homegrown fruit. If you are considering fruit trees for your garden, why not choose a fruit that you don’t see in the grocery store every day? Horticulturist Chuck Ingels recommends plum trees and pluots for home growers. Since plums are fairly easy to find, it might be fun to try growing a pluot tree.

Plumcots, or pluots, are broadly known as interspecific plums | #24CarrotDiet
What do you get when you cross a plum with an apricot? A plumcot!
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What is a Pluot?

A pluot is an apricot plum hybrid. It is generally described as being 75% plum and 25% apricot, though there are now dozens of different pluot varieties. Each of these fruit trees will produce pluots with their own unique genetic makeup. Some have a little more apricot than others, but all tend more heavily towards the plum. Pluots have smooth skin and look very much like plums. They are sweeter than plums, though, and the flesh is more grainy than the flesh of a plum.

The aprium is a related apricot plum hybrid. This stone fruit has more of the apricot characteristics than a pluot does. An aprium has the fuzzy skin and freestone of an apricot. Most varieties also have the colouring of an apricot. The taste is reported to be like an apricot, but with a hint of plum. I have yet to spot an aprium at the grocery store or farmer’s market, so I haven’t tasted this particular hybrid fruit yet. If you have, I’d love to hear what you think of the taste!

Plumcots often have a dark red or purple flesh | #24CarrotDiet
A sliced pluot, showing the clingstone and the juicy flesh of the fruit
Photo by Meaghan O’Malley/Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0


Origins of the Apricot Plum Hybrid

Apricots and plums are, genetically speaking, first cousins. They are both stone fruits in the genus Prunus. At one time, scientists thought these fruits were too different to be crossbred. In the late 19th century, an American horticulturist named Luther Burbank proved them wrong.

Burbank hoped that by crossing plums with apricots he could select for the best characteristics of both fruit trees. Apricots are particularly susceptible to spring frost, but plum trees blossom a bit later. So if he could produce a hybrid fruit tree that flowered later in the spring, he would end up with a hardier fruit.

For its part, the plum bruises easily. Burbank wanted to create a hybrid fruit with the protective fuzz of the apricot. He hoped it would help protect the apricot plum hybrid from bruising and make it easier to transport.

Burbank’s first apricot plum hybrids were 50% plum and 50% apricot. He called them plumcots. Burbank exhibited some of the plumcots from his fruits trees at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, in 1901.



The Science Behind Hybrid Fruit Trees

Burbank’s initial plumcots were created by cross-pollination. In the 80s, biologist Floyd Zaiger picked up Burbank’s research into interspecific plums. Using the same cross-pollination techniques, he created and released two 50%-50% plumcot varieties. Growers were hesitant to try them at the time, because plumcots had a reputation for being difficult to grow and ship.

Zaiger coined the name pluot in an attempt to move beyond the reputation of the older plumcots. He trademarked the name in 1990. Technically, only pluots developed by Zaiger should be called pluots. But today some growers and distributors are using the word “pluot” more generically.

You may find some non-Zaiger fruit trees sold as pluots. And sometimes grocers will sell all interspecific plums as plumcots, regardless of whether they come from Zaiger’s patented strains or not. Don’t let the different names confuse you: both plumcots and pluots are apricot plum hybrids.

Plumcots need a pollenizer nearby. Plant two compatible fruit trees for a plentiful harvest. | #24CarrotDiet
If you want to grow pluots you need to have two compatible fruit trees. The blossoms of one tree provide pollen for the other.
Public domain image by Pixabay user cocopariesienne


Hybrid Genetics and the Pluot Tree

Pluots and apriums grow on fruit trees that have some characteristics of both plum trees and apricot trees. Unlike the so-called fruit salad tree or five fruit tree, they are real hybrid fruits. Each pluot and each aprium is distinct from the parents fruits. This isn’t a case of apricots on one branch of a tree and plums on another.

Plumcots and pluots are “interspecific plums,” meaning they are plum-like fruits that are the result of a cross between two species of fruit trees. They are also considered complex hybrids because they are the result of several generations of cross-breeding. Oranges are another example of a complex hybrid fruit. I’ll bet you never realized that!

Is the Pluot a GMO?

Pluots may sound like weird fruit hybrids, but breeders grow them pretty much like any other fruit. Remember that Burbank developed the first plumcots decades before the first GMO foods. At that time, conventional breeding methods were the only way to develop new vegetables or fruit.

I know that Zaiger’s company, Zaiger Genetics, sounds like a biotech company. And that trademarking names and patenting fruit trees sounds like something Monsanto would do. But neither pluots nor plumcots are not transgenic food. Zaiger’s company uses traditional breeding methods to develop their new fruit trees.

Interspecific plums are the result of selective breeding. Breeders cross-pollinate fruit trees to produce the kind of fruits they are hoping to develop for market. Once that happens, they can graft cuttings from those trees onto rootstocks that are suited to the growing environment. Why grafting? Because most fruits, including apples, don’t grow true to type.

If you plant the seeds from a particularly tasty apple, the resulting fruit trees will grow apples. They just probably won’t be as tasty as the apple you were hoping to reproduce. So it is with plumcots and pluots. Once breeders produce fruit trees that yield the kind of fruit they were looking for, they graft cuttings from those trees onto strong rootstocks. Voila! New fruit trees, without planting seeds!

Hybridization vs GMO

The difference between GMOs and hybrid foods is that breeders use physical methods to develop hybrids. Biotech companies use direct genetic modification instead of selective breeding. Yes, humans are manipulating the genetics of the fruit trees in both cases. But breeders do it by growing fruit trees in a controlled environment and then choosing which trees should be used to pollinate others. They mimic nature’s own processes.

With genetically modified organisms (GMOs) the manipulation happens in a lab under a microscope. It may involve switching off a specific gene. Or it may mean transferring genetic material from one species to another. Either way, modern biotech uses completely different means than the selective breeding methods used to develop hybrid fruit trees like the plumcot.

Pluot Nutrition

As pluots and plumcots are still not terribly well-known, it isn’t easy to find nutritional information on this fruit. The USDA does have nutritional data for certain specific pluots, such as the Dinosaur Egg pluot. According to this data, 100 g of Dinosaur Egg pluots supply 46 calories. That’s the same as a plum. They contain just under 10 g of sugars, including 1.4 g of dietary fibre. Again, this is the same as a plum.

The sugars in pluots are natural fructose and dietitians consider them healthy sugars. The fibre in the pluots helps to slow down the absorption of the sugar, which apparently gives pluots both a low glycemic index and glycemic load.

Pluots have a modest potassium content and supply just under 13% of your daily vitamin C requirement. They contain no sodium and almost no fat. They do, however, supply a small amount of protein and plenty of water.



Where to Buy Pluots

You might think because pluots and plumcots aren’t well-known, that they’d be difficult to find. But if you’re thinking about growing fruit trees in your yard, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a nursery that sells pluot or plumcot trees. If you can’t find a local nursery that carries them or can order them for you, you can definitely find pluot fruit trees for sale online.

Pluots need a winter chill to ensure they’ll set fruit, so they grow best in places where the winters are cold but there is no danger of late spring frost. When you buy your plumcot tree, buy two fruit trees. One should be the variety you want to grow. The other is your “pollenizer,” a compatible plumcot or plum tree. Ask the nursery to recommend varieties that will grow well together, and talk to them about where to plant fruit trees in your yard.

Want to Try Pluots Before You Buy a Fruit Tree?

As for the fruit itself, pluots and plumcots are beginning to show up at farmers markets. You may also be able to find them in grocery stores, even in small rural towns like mine. We found what I think were Dapple Dandy pluots here a few years ago. (They were labelled as plumcots, but they matched the description of Zaiger’s patented pluot variety fairly closely.)

Apparently, there are more plumcots and pluots in the marketplace than we would expect. That’s partly because grocery stores know that consumers are a bit shy of trying new foods. People worry about unknowingly eating GMOs, and they tend to stick to foods they know. This has led to some grocers selling pluots and plumcots as plums.

You May Be Eating Pluots Without Realizing It

“Pluots now make up a majority of the plum market,” said NPR’s Pat Tanumihardja in a 2009 report. So the growers favour these apricot plum hybrid fruit trees – but grocers don’t always tell consumers the fruit they’re buying is a hybrid. In Canada, labelling regulations say that vendors should label a fruit using its usual name. Since pluots are interspecific plums, it’s legal to label them as plums.

If you want to taste pluots before buying your fruit trees, you may have to do a bit of sleuthing. It’s fairly safe to say that if you find fruit labelled as a specific variety of pluot, that’s probably what it is. But you may already be eating plumcots without realizing it. And in some grocery stores, you may even find that the same fruit is being sold as “plums” for one price and as “pluots” for a higher price. Grocers often do the same thing with sweet potatoes, selling the ones they label as “yams” at a higher price. So be alert when you shop!


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Pluots are a complex apricot plum hybrid
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American Thanksgiving vs Canadian Thanksgiving: Which Came First and How Do Our Traditions Vary?

Thanksgiving is a uniquely North American holiday. While there is a long tradition of celebrating and giving thanks for the harvest on both sides of the Atlantic, the whole “turkey and trimmings, pilgrims on the Mayflower” theme of the holiday sets our Thanksgiving apart. Growing up, we were taught to think on this holiday as a time of cooperation between the European settlers and the First Nations who inhabited the continent long before the Age of Exploration.

The first yearly Thanksgiving celebrations after Confederation date back to November 6, 1879 – though the holiday as we know it today actually began in the Province of Canada in 1859. The roots of the holiday run much deeper, to European harvest festivals and First Nations celebrations of thanksgiving. (The Haudenosaunee, in whose traditional territory I was raised, celebrated thirteen different Thanksgiving festivals. Some of these lasted several days at a stretch, like the Midwinter Ceremony around the time of the January new moon: it went on for nine days.)

And although Canadians are very familiar with the lore of the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in 1621, we look back to even earlier celebrations associated with explorers like Champlain and Frobisher. You could say that although our official celebrations began in the 19th century, the Thanksgiving tradition in Canada may be rooted in the 17th or even the 16th century.

What Day Does Thanksgiving Fall On?

While our American neighbours celebrate Thanksgiving between Halloween and Christmas, Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated much earlier, on the second Monday in the month of October. Thanksgiving has been fixed on this day since 1957, though the holiday had been celebrated in Canada for hundreds of years before that. This timing coincides with the (controversial) holiday of Columbus Day in the United States.

Thanksgiving is a national holiday in Canada. It is a statutory (paid) holiday in all provinces and territories except the Atlantic provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

As in the United States, turkey is central to a Canadian Thanksgiving menu
A roast turkey ready to be carved
(Image: Dianne Rosete/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Canadian Thanksgiving Food Traditions

A traditional Canadian Thanksgiving dinner is pretty similar to an American one. Turkey is usually the main dish on the Thanksgiving menu. The sides include gravy and stuffing (or dressing, as we called it growing up) as well as cranberries, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other trimmings a family enjoys. I know some people absolutely must eat Brussels sprouts with their turkey dinner, but I’m not aware of it being a particular tradition in Canada. We usually do glazed carrots and maybe a green salad. Mom likes to make broccoli salads these days, and they are very popular with the kids.

The stuffing is usually made with a wheat-based bread and not a cornbread stuffing as is more common south of the border. My mother always made her turkey dressing from the turkey giblets – the turkey liver, to be more precise. She’d chop the liver up into small bits and pan fry it with some onion and celery. The stuffing was made with cubed slices of white bread and seasoned with sage.

Also, we don’t tend to do the candied yam thing here in Canada. And we definitely never got the memo about putting marshmallows on top of sweet potato casserole. Most folks here just bake them and serve them like normal baked potatoes. And it turns out, preparing them this way also boosts their vitamin C content. That’s a huge plus in my book!

In some parts of Canada, a boiled dinner is preferred to a turkey. In Newfoundland, this meal is also known as Jiggs’ dinner. It consists of corned beef or some other salted beef or pork, boiled with cabbage and root vegetables such as turnips, parsnips, potatoes, and carrots. You may also find Canadians who like to serve a Thanksgiving ham.

Pumpkin pies are often on the menu for dessert, but you might also find apple pie since apples are in season around this time. Sweet potato pie is not something you would find on too many Canadian tables. But you might find butter tarts, a traditional Canadian dessert. In British Columbia, Nanaimo bars are popular; in Quebecois you might find sucre à la crème or a tarte au sucre!

Cornucopia means horn of plenty
The cornucopia is a symbol of the harvest and Thanksgiving
(Image: Jeanette Oneil/Public Domain Pictures/CC0 1.0)

Thanksgiving Symbols

The turkey is probably the most popular Thanksgiving symbol in Canada, though we are also seeing a lot more squash and pumpkins now. This may be due to more people eating squash as a regular part of our diet these days. Back in the 70s, I think most of us treated them the same way we did pumpkins: as decor.

The cornucopia, or horn of plenty, is another symbol that all Canadian children used to be taught around Thanksgiving. The horn is filled with vegetables, fruits and nuts that remind us of the abundance of the harvest.

Another symbol we learned to associate with Thanksgiving at an early age is “Indian” corn, otherwise known as flint corn, or sometimes calico corn because of its mottled colouring. Its botanical name is Zea mays var. indurata, a reference to the hard outer layer that protects the soft part inside the kernels. Flint corn is dried and used to make flour, cornmeal, and hominy. We grew up thinking of this corn as a decoration, as we often saw it hung on doors or added to a table centrepiece but we never saw anyone cooking with it. But the First Nations peoples who lived in North America before our European ancestors knew this corn well and grew it for eating.

Flint corn is also called Indian corn
Indian corn or flint corn is often multicoloured
(Image: dh_creative/Pixabay/CC0 1.0)

What Canadian Kids Learned About Thanksgiving

Growing up in Canada in the 70s, we learned about Thanksgiving pretty much the same way that American schoolchildren did. We learned about the pilgrims and the Mayflower, and how the “Indians” (we now call them First Nations or Indigenous peoples) shared their harvest feast with the European settlers on the very first Thanksgiving.

The American Thanksgiving story had migrated north with the Loyalists around the time of the American Revolution and it became part of our culture too, as did many of the foods we now associate with the holiday, like turkey and pumpkin pie (neither of which was probably eaten at the first Thanksgiving meal.)

The Very First Thanksgiving

While Canadian children have been taught the American Thanksgiving story, Canada has contributed some very different chapters to the Thanksgiving story. In part, those contributions relate to just when the very first Thanksgiving took place.

Some people say the first Thanksgiving celebration in North America was not the Plymouth Rock feasts of 1621, but rather Martin Frobisher’s celebration on Baffin island (in what is now the territory of Nunavut) in 1578. This celebration of thanksgiving, more than 40 years before the Mayflower landed in North America, doesn’t seem to have included any Indigenous people. Being that the occasion was one of giving thanks for surviving the rough seas – not for a bountiful harvest – it’s difficult to fit this story into the Thanksgiving narrative. While some Canadian writers have tried, these claims have been criticized.

In 1606, Samuel de Champlain founded l‘Ordre de Bon Temps (“The Order of Good Cheer”) to help keep spirits up in the Habitation at Port-Royal. The French settlers were shocked by the severity of Canadian winters and many had died of scurvy during the previous winter. The Order of Good Cheer was instituted in an effort to boost morale and provide nutritious meals that would keep the settlers healthy throughout the harsh winter months. Champlain’s guests to the bi-weekly dinners included the colony’s elite and members of the Mi’kmaq community. Foods served at the feasts were supplied by French settlers who took turns hunting and trading with their Aboriginal neighbours. The dishes included some foods that were familiar to the Europeans and others that were introduced to them by the First Nations people with whom they interacted.

Because of this festive atmosphere and the cooperation between Europeans and Indigenous people, Champlain’s feasts are also sometimes put forth as a possible origin of Thanksgiving in Canada. While this assertion is also criticized, l‘Ordre de Bon Temps does set a precedent for amicable relations and shared meals between the Europeans and the First Nations with whom they traded.

Canada’s Early Official Thanksgiving Celebrations

Whether we accept or reject the Frobisher and Champlain celebrations as an authentic part of Thanksgiving history in Canada, there is still more to tell. Canada held official Thanksgiving celebrations at various times to give thanks for the end of a war or the survival of a royal heir who had been gravely ill. And beginning in 1859, Protestant clergy members in Canada were petitioning the government to hold official Thanksgiving celebrations of a distinctly nationalistic flavour.

Thanksgiving in Canada was, in part, a reaction to the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – a book that shocked the world and challenged the creation story of the Bible. A day of prayer that pointed to the abundant harvest as proof that God exists was their way to address the crisis of faith Darwin had stirred up. Thanksgiving promoted a Protestant, English-speaking Canada in a time of conflicting interests from both America and the conquered people of New France.

Over time, Thanksgiving has lost its religious and nationalistic flavour. Apparently, the railways played a role in the secularization of Thanksgiving, marketing the holiday as a time to travel to family gatherings during the early 20th century. Right into the 21st century, Thanksgiving has retained that focus on the family and on taking time away from work for a relaxing break. Unlike our American neighbours, we don’t see it as a time for shopping. If anything, many businesses and stores are closed for the day. And then everyone is back to work on the Tuesday!

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Sweet Potato or Yam: Why Does This Healthy Vegetable Have So Many People Confused?

Sweet potatoes have been part of the typical Thanksgiving menu for a century or more, although neither they nor regular everyday potatoes were present at the first Thanksgiving feasts on either side of the border. If you grew up in the United States, you probably remember eating candied yams or sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows alongside your turkey and cranberries.

If you grew up in the American south, you may have also eaten sweet potato pie at Thanksgiving for dessert – instead of pumpkin pie. (And that rivalry between sweet potato pie and pumpkin pie is the stuff of a whole ‘nother conversation!)

Here in Canada, these dishes are not nearly as common as they are in the United States but sweet potatoes are still one of our Thanksgiving sides – usually just baked and served with a pat of butter. We also eat sweet potatoes with our Christmas dinner, and pretty much any other time we cook a turkey with all the trimmings. In fact for many Canadians, these are probably the only times in the year that we eat a sweet potato, more’s the shame!

But is it a Sweet Potato or a Yam?

The question of whether we’re actually eating a sweet potato or a yam is a confusing one. Let me share a personal experience with you to illustrate what I mean. Thanksgiving is celebrated in early October here in Canada, so we had our big turkey dinner a little over a month ago. And as every year, there was a bowl on the table filled with small, foil-wrapped nuggets still steaming from the oven.

“Do you want sweet potatoes?” my mother asked as she held the bowl out towards me. “Well, they’re really yams.” she added. “I made sure to get yams instead of sweet potatoes.” She then went on to explain that the yams were smaller, sweeter, and softer when cooked than sweet potatoes are. And they have a darker-coloured flesh.

Well, this was news to me!



Why was Mom Calling Sweet Potatoes, ‘Yams’?

In all my 50 years on the planet, we’ve never called those lovely, orange-fleshed tubers “yams” in our family. And I generally see this vegetable sold as “sweet potato” in the stores. Most of my friends call them sweet potatoes too, so I had always kind of assumed that “sweet potato” was more of a Canadian expression, while our American neighbours seem to prefer “yam.” (There is, of course, a completely unrelated African tuber properly called a yam, that has been available in North American grocery stores for several years now. If you’ve ever had those yams, you know they are very different from a sweet potato, whatever we choose to call it in Canada and the US.)

So why was Mom suddenly calling our sweet potatoes “yams”? And why was she talking about there being some sort of difference in the size, colour, and firmness of the flesh?

Sweet potato (not a yam)
Note the smooth skin and tapered end of the sweet potato
(Image: LauraLisLT/Pixabay/CC0 1.0)


What is a Sweet Potato?

The scientific name for the sweet potato is Ipomoea batatas. If you’re familiar with botanical names for popular flowers, you might recognize that sweet potatoes are related to morning glories. In fact, the resemblance between the flowers of the two plants is remarkable. Could you tell one from the other if you saw these two plants growing side by side?

The flower of a sweet potato plant
The sweet potato is one vegetable you might want to grow just for the flowers!
(Image: Deborah Hayes/Public Domain Pictures/CC0 1.0)


A morning glory flower looks very similar to the sweet potato flower
This second flower is a morning glory. Could you tell them apart?
(Image: ccipeggy/Pixabay/CC0 1.0)


Sweet potatoes are a New World vegetable. They were first domesticated about 5,000 years ago, probably in Central America. But today they are grown throughout much of the Americas. They are also cultivated in some parts of Africa, in India, China, and other Asian nations, and also in Polynesia and Australasia.

Although the common name implies that these are potatoes, the sweet potato is only distantly related to potatoes. The potato belongs to the nightshade family (Solanaceae,) along with tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. The sweet potato belongs to the morning glory family (Convolvulaceae.) Both families are members of the order Solanales. That makes the two root vegetables sort of distant cousins. Sweet potatoes are also not related to yams, which are tubers in the family Dioscoreaceae. The yam is an Old World vegetable native to Africa and Asia, and is more closely related to grasses and lilies than to either potatoes or sweet potatoes.



What Does a Sweet Potato Look Like?

Sweet potatoes have tapered ends and smooth, thin skin. The skin can range in colour from copper or brown to red or even purple. The flesh of a sweet potato is usually orange, varying in saturation from deep orange all the way to yellow or beige. Sweet potatoes can also have white or purple flesh.

A sweet potato showing the deep orange flesh inside – just remember the colour can vary!
Sweet potatoes come in a wide range of colours – including purple!
(Image: National Cancer Institute/Wikimedia Commons/public domain)


By contrast, yams have coarse, scaly skin that is sometimes compared to a tree trunk. They are cylindrical tubers, usually with white flesh. Some North American grocery stores stock African yams, but you’ll probably need to go to an import store or specialty market unless you live in a big city.

The yam is an Old World vegetable and is completely unrelated to sweet potatoes
This yam has a coarse, bark-like skin and a more tubular shape than a sweet potato
(Image: chrisad85/Pixabay/CC0 1.0)


Why Do We Sometimes Call Sweet Potatoes Yams?

There seem to be two main reasons for the use of the word “yam” when we are actually talking about sweet potatoes:

  1. African slaves used this name:
    Yams are one of the staple foods in Africa. West African people saw a resemblance between yams and sweet potatoes, so they used the same word for both vegetables. Some accounts say Europeans introduced sweet potatoes to the people of West Africa, who later came to the New World as slaves. Other stories say the slaves first encountered sweet potatoes once they’d arrived in America. As the slave trade was carried on for some three centuries, it’s likely both are true. In any case, the West African people used sweet potatoes the same way they did yams, and they used the same name for both.

  2. Farmers in Louisiana used this name:
    All sweet potatoes originally had white or pale yellow flesh. So darker-fleshed sweet potatoes were a pretty cool development! Farmers in Louisiana had a sweeter, orange-fleshed variety of the sweet potato in about the 1920s or 1930s. Because you can’t tell what the inside of a vegetable looks like from its skin and you don’t know how sweet it is until you eat it, they needed to find a clever way to set their sweet potato apart from the rest.

    The farmers called their vegetable a “yam,”  sweet potatoes. The Louisiana crops contrasted with the drier, firmer fleshed sweet potatoes that farmers elsewhere in the US were growing. This is why you’ll sometimes see people using “yam” to describe a sweet potato that has soft, moist, richly coloured flesh, and “sweet potato” for those vegetables whose flesh is firm, dry, and often more pale in colour.

Although we all have our preferences when it comes to the type of sweet potatoes we like to eat, you should know that the “yam” type of sweet potato is better suited to some recipes and the more firm, dry-fleshed sweet potato is better for others. Sweet potatoes that are softer are great for baking, mashing, and of course making a sweet potato casserole or baking a sweet potato pie. But those with a firmer flesh will make great sweet potato fries.

Sweet Potato Nutrition

Some folks say that the sweet potato is a superfood. If you look at its nutritional content, it’s not hard to see why. One average sweet potato, baked in its skin, contains 438% of our recommended daily intake for vitamin A – a nutrient that about half of North Americans are lacking in their diet. 

Sweet potato also scores high for several other nutrients: 37% of vitamin C; 27% of potassium; 25% each of vitamin B6 and manganese; 15% each of vitamin B6, potassium, and dietary fibre; 10% of thiamine (vitamin B1.) Sweet potatoes also supply lesser amounts of magnesium, iron, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, sodium, several additional B vitamins, and protein. Wow!

Baking Increases Vitamin C in Your Sweet Potato

Baking is a preferred cooking method for sweet potatoes, as it increases the vitamin C content of the vegetable. If you prepare it by a different method, you won’t get as much of the vitamin C but it’s still a nutritious vegetable. One baked sweet potato provides 103 calories (compared with 163 calories for a medium baked potato or 174 calories for 1 cup of potatoes mashed with whole milk.)

If you are eating sweet potatoes for their vitamin A and carotenoid content, choose those with the richer orange colour to their flesh. If you decide to experiment with purple sweet potatoes you’ll benefit from anthocyanins, the same flavonoids found in blueberries. White-, cream-, or yellow-coloured sweet potato flesh contains mostly beta-zea-carotene.

When it’s time to eat that turkey dinner, choose a baked potato and other high-fibre vegetables. Eat these and a healthy portion of turkey before you move onto other foods and drinks. Research shows that eating lean protein and high-fibre vegetables at the beginning of your meal can reduce both blood sugar and insulin levels, compared to consuming foods like bread or fruit juices first.

Healthy living tip: Eat high-fibre veggies & lean protein first – 24 Carrot Diet
Avoid holiday weight gain: Eat lean protein and high-fibre vegetables like sweet potatoes at the beginning of your meal
( Graphic made in Canva using a public domain image by Pixabay user LauraLisLT)


Do you include sweet potatoes in your Thanksgiving dinner sides? Or “yams”? How does your family like to serve them? Please share your traditions in the comments below. And to all my American readers who will be celebrating with family this week, Happy Thanksgiving!


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Sweet potato or yam: do you know the difference? Whether you call them yams or sweet potatoes, the vegetables in your Thanksgiving sides are probably New World sweet potatoes and not Old World yams. | food history | sweet potato nutrition | 24 Carrot Diet
Sweet potatoes come in a wide range of colours, from cream or yellow through deep orange. There are even purple sweet potatoes!
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Thanksgiving in Canada has it own unique and little told story (Graphic made in Canva using a public domain image by Pixabay user TerriC)






(Graphic made in Canva using a public domain image from Maxpixel)


Original content © 2017 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter

This article was published on my food blog, 24 Carrot Diet. If you are reading this content anywhere else, it has probably been stolen. Please report it to me so I can address any copyright infringements. Thank you!

Food History: Meet the Once-Famous Fruit that Survived Near Extinction

The Montreal melon is fairly unknown today, even in Montreal. But once it was a popular culinary delicacy. Upscale hotel restaurants served the melon alongside champagne and beluga caviar. At the beginning of the 20th century, Montreal market melon sold for upwards of $1 a slice. At the time, that was about twice the price of a full-course meal.

Loss of Crop Diversity in the 20th Century

How does a fruit as sought after as the Montreal market melon end up in obscurity? Actually, there are many foods that have gone this way. Did you know that the world has lost 75% of all our food crops in the last 50 years?

This mass extinction of food crops is the result of changes in human society. Urbanization, globalization, even scientists trying to fight world hunger, have all contributed to the loss. In today’s food market, uniformity, familiarity and appearance take precedence. Shelf life, cost, and ease of transport are major considerations. Variety, and even flavour, take a back seat to these other factors.

The result is more farmers planting the same variety of a given crop. For example, since restaurants like McDonald’s have long favoured russet Burbank potatoes for making French fries, more farmers grow this type of potato. But what about the rest of the 200 or so varieties of North American potatoes? If most farmers want to grow the crops that are in high demand, they are going to be leaving a lot of other varieties by the wayside.

That’s pretty much what happened to the Montreal melon. People were once willing to pay a high price for the precious fruit because they couldn’t grow the melon. But eventually, the market shifted towards a single kind of muskmelon. The orange-fleshed cantaloupe became the standard, and farmers eventually stopped growing Montreal’s market melon altogether.


Montreal melon: The caviar of cantaloupe
The Montreal melon was a delicacy on par with champagne and caviar


The Caviar of Cantaloupe

BuzzFeed has called the Montreal market melon “the caviar of cantaloupe,” and rightly so! You couldn’t get this rare and exotic fruit just anywhere: it was difficult to grow and didn’t stand up to transport over long distances. But in Montreal, Boston, and New York City, diners in the best restaurants could feast on a juicy slice of this green-fleshed melon if they were willing to pay the price.

Farmers grew the melons on the slopes of Mount Royal and shipped them to the United States daily. A number of American merchants sold the seed. Most notable among them was Atlee Burpee, who had discovered a specimen at the Ste Anne’s Market in 1880.



Montreal Melons Didn’t Grow Well in the US

But the Queen of Melons, as some people called the Montreal melon, never did as well in New England as it did in the rich soil of its homeland. Maybe the farmers in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grâce put more care into growing their melons. After all, each family had their own strain of the Montreal melon. They took pride in growing the biggest, juiciest, and tastiest melons. And boy, did they pamper their crops!

But maybe it’s a bit of a lesson to all gardeners about landraces. Local may just be better, even when it comes to choosing the seeds for our gardens. Not every plant will do well in a given place – even when there’s no obvious reason it shouldn’t.


Montreal market melon, from 19th century advertising card
Rendering of the melon, listed as the “new Montreal Nutmeg,” from an 1887 advertising card for Rice’s vegetable seeds
(Image: Boston Public Library/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)


Developing a Premium Market Melon

So what does this infamous Montreal melon look like, and where did it come from?

The Montreal market melon is also sometimes called the Montreal muskmelon or the Montreal nutmeg melon. It’s a cross between the green-fleshed nutmeg melon and European cantaloupes. The seeds for these European melons came to the New World with settlers from France in the 17th century. Nobody seems to know when exactly the first Montreal melons appeared. We do know they were around by the end of the 19th century, when cantaloupes and muskmelons became a market crop.

The Montreal melon is a green-fleshed, netted melon with a slightly spicy taste like nutmeg. Grown under the right conditions, it is enormous. Some sources say the melon grows to about 15 – 25 lb. At least one reference speaks of melons as big as 40 lb. Like its European ancestors, the melon has noticeable ribs. Its grey-green skin is also netted, like the salmon-fleshed cantaloupe most North Americans know and love.



Montreal melons were once the pride of the country. The Burpee Seeds catalogue once described the fruits as “remarkably thick, light green, melting, and of a delicious flavor.” They called it the “handsomest possible melon,” and by 1883 were offering cash prizes to farmers who were able to produce the largest melons. Burpee listed the fruit as the “Montreal Green Nutmeg Melon.”

Atlee Burpee wasn’t the only one singing the praises of the Montreal melon. A USDA farming bulletin published in 1909 called it a “melon of unusual excellence.” In his review of heirloom melon varieties, food historian William Woys Weaver says of the Montreal melon, “It became the most widely grown muskmelon in New England, Canada, and the Upper Midwest, not only because of its large size but because it yielded the best-flavored melons for short-season gardens.”

Near-Extinction of the Montreal Melon

Montreal’s market melon was once grown over acres and acres of farmland between Mount Royal and the St. Lawrence River. But over the years, urban expansion ate away at the farmland in Montreal.

Cars replaced horses, and all but one of the racetracks that once supplied manure for the heavy-feeding melon crops closed their doors. The Decarie Expressway now cuts through what used to be the farm of one noted melon-growing family. Row upon row of duplexes line streets with names like Old Orchard Avenue, a faint memory of the farms that once dominated the landscape of Montreal’s N.D.G.

Green melons fell out of favour sometime after World War II, and the delicate skin of the Montreal market melon didn’t stand up to transport. Agribusiness favoured crops that were easier to grow and transport. As time went on, only home gardeners were growing Montreal’s market melon.

Even Burpee Seeds dropped the Montreal melon from its catalogue in the 1950s. At one point, the melon was believed to be extinct. Biodiversity was losing ground to agribusiness and the pressures of global climate change.


Heirloom gardening: Montreal market melon, developed by crossing traditional French cantaloupes with spicy, green-fleshed nutmeg melons
The Montreal melon is a cross between spicy, green nutmeg melons and traditional French cantaloupes like this Charentais melon
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Graphic made in Canva using a CC0 photo by Pixabay user Anybid


A Lazarus Species

Luckily, a few seeds for the Montreal market melon were tucked away in a USDA seed repository in Ames, Iowa. In the late 1990s, they were given to scientist and farmer Ken Taylor, a man whom I had the pleasure to know all too briefly while I was at college in Ste. Anne de Bellevue in the 80s. The melons were grown at Windmill Point Farm, about an hour from the slopes where the cultivar originated. The seeds grew true to type, and Taylor was able to produce a stable strain that attracted attention from local and national media, as well as organizations such as Seeds of Diversity. At one point, the Slow Food Foundation selected the Montreal melon for its Ark of Taste.

Once he had saved sufficient seeds, Taylor started spreading them around in an effort to preserve the rare genes. He worked on the crop for several years and even crossed it with other melons to produce a smaller variety that has the same taste as the original Montreal muskmelon. But the melon never enjoyed the same commercial success it had in the early 20th century. Taylor has since stopped growing it altogether, and now it’s hard to find a mention of it except as a historical curiosity.

But the melon is still regarded as a “Lazarus species,” one rescued from extinction and restored to life. It may not be available in your local supermarket, or even at your farmers market, but there is sufficient supply of the seed to ensure that heirloom gardeners will be able to grow the crop at home.

Growing the Montreal Melon in the 21st Century

Want to grow the caviar of cantaloupe in your heirloom garden? You can now purchase seeds for the Montreal market melon from a number of online seed catalogues across Canada. I haven’t been able to locate a supplier for the melon seeds in either the US or Europe, but please post a comment if you know of one!

Montreal muskmelons need full sun and lots of pampering. But if you are up to the challenge of growing these historic beauties, in about 85-90 days you, too, can enjoy an exotic taste from the past. Remember, these are really huge fruits! Even though most growing them nowadays say they aren’t able to produce a melon on the same scale as those of days gone by, they are still growing to a weight of 5 lbs. As the melons don’t store well, it’s best to eat them soon after harvest. So be sure to share them around! Let your friends and neighbours get a taste of the fruit that came back from the dead.


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Original content © 2017 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter

This article was published on my food blog, 24 Carrot Diet. If you are reading this content anywhere else, it has probably been stolen. Please report it to me so I can address any copyright infringements. Thank you!

Featured Image: Collage created in Canva using CC0 photos from Pixabay users Isasza, seagul, and Robert Owen-Wahl

How to Bake a Yummy, Sweet War Cake

I discovered war cake quite by accident. One day when my daughter asked me if we could make up a batch of poor man’s pudding, I discovered that I could no longer find my favourite recipe online. When I searched for a new recipe, I came up with one that looked more or less right, except it had raisins in it. And this recipe was subtitled “war cake.”

Figuring it was just another name for this frugal dish, I printed off the war cake recipe and gave it to my daughter. It turns out, though, I had stumbled upon a completely different and delicious dessert!

History of War Cakes

War cake dates back to the American civil war, and was popular on both sides of the Atlantic during the WWI and depression eras. The recipe is characterized by the absence of milk, butter and eggs – ingredients that would have been scarce during wartime.

Shortening replaces the butter that would be in most cake recipes, and you’ll notice that the only leavening is provided by the baking soda in hot water.

The hot water also replaces the milk and eggs for the purpose of providing moisture. If you find the cake dry, you can increase the moisture by placing a shallow pan of water on the bottom rack of your oven during baking.

How to Bake a Yummy, Sweet War Cake | #NoEgg #NoMilk #cake

No-egg, no-milk, no-butter cake – but still moist and delicious!
(Image from a photo by Celeste Lindell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)


Frugal Substitutions

You’ll notice that this recipe uses two cups of brown sugar, a more expensive ingredient even today. Some other war cakes have a smaller amount of sugar, and one or two replace the brown sugar with white. I’ve also seen some war cake recipes that use corn syrup and molasses. If you decide to make these substitutions, just be aware that each sweetener gives slightly different results in the finished cake.

The pound of raisins is also a bit of a splurge for families on a budget, as are the optional nuts. If you are trying to be frugal, do leave out the nuts. But the raisins (and the brown sugar) give this cake a good deal of its texture and flavour. Don’t skimp on them!

Remember that the recipe makes two loaves, and that it’s supposed to be a little bit of an extravagance when you are otherwise living a rather austere life.

War Cake Recipe

2 cups dark brown sugar
2 cups hot water
2 tbsp shortening
1 tsp each: cinnamon and nutmeg
1/2 tsp each ground cloves and ginger
1 lb raisins
1/2 lb chopped walnuts and/or almonds (optional)
3 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda dissolved in 1 tsp hot water


In a saucepan, mix together the sugar, hot water, shortening, spices and raisins. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook 5 minutes.

Set aside to cool for up to several hours, stirring often. The mixture will thicken up during the cooling period. Don’t rush and add the flour too soon, or the cake won’t bake properly.

Gradually mix in flour and soda. The batter should be thick. Pour into two well oiled and floured loaf pans.

Bake 45-60 minutes in a preheated 350°F oven, or until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. The resulting loaf should look like a darker, more dense version of banana bread.

Serve slices with a little butter at breakfast or tea time, or as a sweet finish to a hearty meal like stew or shepherd’s pie.

Do You Eat Low-Carb? Check Out this Vintage Recipe that Was Once Eaten as a Health Food

Salisbury steak is of interest to anyone following a low-carb diet – at least historically, if not as a regular part of the diet. Created by Dr. James Salisbury, the dish was originally intended as a cure for the terrible diarrhea soldiers suffered during the American Civil War. Salisbury believed we should limit carbohydrates and fats, and eat a diet composed mainly of meat. He recommended eating his creation, which he prescribed for treatment of tuberculosis, diabetes, goiter, and other conditions, three times a day!

Salisbury steak was essentially a cake or burger made from ground round, broiled slowly and seasoned with butter, salt and pepper. Salisbury also allowed for flavouring with Worcestershire sauce, mustard, horseradish, or lemon juice.

Most recipes today include onion and mushroom as essential components, though these were not in the original burger. Salisbury recommended a bit of celery instead, “used as a relish.” The celery in my recipe is a nod to the good doctor.

Salisbury Steak Recipe

1-1/2 to 2 lb lean or extra lean ground beef
1 packet onion soup mix
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup milk
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1-2 tbsp tomato paste
1/2 tsp dry mustard

flour for dredging (optional)
oil for browning

Mushroom Gravy:
1 cup beef broth
1 can sliced mushroom, with liquid
2 tsp dried minced onion
1-2 stalks celery, chopped (optional)
salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce to taste

Mix the ground beef with the onion soup and bread crumbs. Add the egg, milk, and seasonings. Form into patties. If desired, dredge each patty in flour before browning.



Freezing Salisbury Steak

I like to make a double batch of both the patties and the gravy when I cook Salisbury steaks. We eat half right away, and I freeze the second half for later use. If you choose to do this, just brown the patties that you’ll be storing and cook partially only. This allows them to be reheated without becoming dry. Store burgers and gravy together or separately, either in labelled freezer bags or foil/glass baking pans.

When you want to use your freezer meal, defrost in the fridge over night. Heat through in a 350ºF oven for about 30 minutes, or cook on low for about 4 hours in a crockpot. Ground beef is safe to eat when the internal temperature reaches 160ºF.

This Salisbury steak recipe is quick and easy, and it’s a good way to stretch ground beef now that it’s gotten so expensive in some places. Add some steamed broccoli or lightly sauteed snap peas, or serve with a salad that contains some dark green, leafy vegetables in order to boost the vitamin content of the meal.




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Salisbury steak as once considered a health food
Dr. Salisbury was a 19th century advocate of the low-carb diet
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Original content © 2014-2017 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter
I originally published this article on Bubblews in April 2014

This article was published on my food blog, 24 Carrot Diet. If you are reading this content anywhere else, it has probably been stolen. Please report it to me so I can address any copyright infringements. Thank you!