Turnips—the village idiot of vegetables?

Sydney’s Covid lockdown has brought roots to the fore. Hairdressers have been closed for months so everyone’s roots are showing. Cafés and restaurants are take-away only. Keen to support our local favourites, and desperate to get off the hamster-wheel of planning, shopping for, and preparing home-cooked meals, we’re indulging in take-away big time.

It’s no secret that I’m very fond of root vegetables. I have a chapter in The Book of Thistles called Forgotten Roots. It was a take-away dinner last week that got me thinking specifically about turnips. (Chinese turnip omelette from the Blue Eye Dragon in Pyrmont was the curiosity-provoking dish.) I wondered if there wasn’t more to the turnip than a synonym for dopiness. More to the village idiot of vegetables.

The Blue Eye Dragon’s Chinese turnip omelette

I started making notes.

The turnip, Brassica rapa, is one of the earliest cultivated vegetables. In the fourth-century BCE turnips were one of the foods that sustained the poor of ancient Athens. And they were an important food for the Romans. From the classical world the turnip spread east to China—and elsewhere.

Turnips taste better and are more versatile when they are picked young and small in late spring or early summer. There’s less you can do cooking-wise with the bigger, older ones.

A German cookbook published in 1485 gave recipes for preparing turnips and other vegetables. Less than a century later turnips—along with carrots and parsnips—were introduced to England by Flemish weavers. Initially grown as livestock fodder, they made the transition to the table, but were—perhaps still are?—associated with farm labourers, immigrants, and consumers of low socio-economic status. Although peasant cuisine is now fashionable, I’ve noticed that turnips are rarely on the menu.

From John Gerard, Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, published circa 1597

In 1776 the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (of The Wealth of Nations fame) noted that staples—like turnips—which had until then been produced largely by individual workers in allotments and garden plots, were now being farmed on a large scale.

Yes, turnips may be considered a peasant food, but the association with dirt and poverty seems unfair. Turnips, after all, helped make Britain wealthy. In the eighteenth century, Charles, Second Viscount, Townsend championed crop rotation, agricultural reform and the cultivation of Brassica rapa. It was the start of an agricultural revolution and earned him the nickname ‘Turnip’ Townsend.

Turnips will crowd out or smother weeds, are cold-tolerant and an all round easy-to-grow crop.

The swede, a.k.a. rutabaga, is a kind of turnip, possibly originating from a cross between the turnip and the cabbage, and a late arrival on the culinary scene. In 1916 – 1917 swedes helped save a substantial section of the German population from starvation.

In Forgotten Fruits, Christopher Stocks describes turnip varieties called Snowball and Orange Jelly.

I would not go so far as to say that winter turnips are useless. They have their place in soup and stocks …  But unless you are prepared to lavish attention and butter on them, I would suggest waiting until the spring and early summer.’ Jane Grigson was not a great fan of the turnip—and she actively disliked swedes. When it came to turnips, the French, she wrote, had the right idea. Their turnip dishes used young, spring-harvested vegetables. Whereas in England, ‘we stick too much to the agricultural view, regarding the turnips as a coarse, cow-sized vegetable, suitable for the over-wintering of herds, schoolchildren, prisoners and lodgers.

In Digging the Past Frances E Dolan introduces chapter 2 (Knowing Your Food: Turnips, Titus, and the Local) with a couple of instances of turnip-related violence. The accidental death of an infant in 1651 from a turnip tossed over a church wall, and a wife murdered by her husband who couldn’t stomach the prospect of turnips for dinner.

Dolan points out that some historians and food writers have dismissed the turnip’s story as one that is not worth telling. Unlike say, tomatoes, apples, or potatoes. A point of view echoed—or prefigured—by Jennifer A Jordan in Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Vegetables. A heritage turnip sounds like an oxymoron. Does such a thing exist? Yes, it does. There’s a Japanese heirloom turnip known as hoekurai. And no doubt somewhere out there are more lost varieties waiting to be rediscovered.

Everyone knows about heirloom tomatoes and the history of apples. They’re the A-listers. Turnips don’t even make the B-list. They’re at, or close to, the bottom of the celebrity vegetable hierarchy.

There’s nothing glamorous about the turnip. It’s an unprepossessing vegetable. Unlike strawberries or tomatoes, it’s not freighted with nostalgia. Nor a reservoir of youthful memories—except perhaps in Scotland where mashed ‘neeps’ are a traditional side-dish. Unlike strawberries, apples and tomatoes, turnips usually need cooking, or some kind of pickling or preserving.

The Turnip Princess is a fairy tale collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth. It fuses the magical and the mundane and when I read it I see elements of a reverse Sleeping Beauty. A bear tells the hero (a prince, of course) that if he puts a rusty nail under a field turnip his reward will be a beautiful wife. The Gigantic Turnip is a classic, much retold Russian folktale in which a farmer grows a turnip so large he’s unable to uproot it by himself, and has to enlist the aid of family members and a procession of creatures. Together they succeed in pulling up the massive turnip.

Turnips were apparently thrown by Roman audiences at unpopular orators and during plays and poetry readings that did not meet with their approval. The ancient world’s equivalent of rotten tomatoes. On a more positive note, in some translations of her verse, the poet Sappho, writing in the early seventh century BCE, calls one of her paramours ‘Turnip’.

Turnips play well in tagines and soups. Roasted with cumin and paprika, or with garam masala. Shavings of young turnips add crunch and pepperiness to salads and stir-fries. I cook very finely diced swedes, serve them seasoned with nutmeg, white pepper and extra virgin olive oil, or use them as the basis for a vegetarian Cornish pasty. And I like to think that buying turnips from farmers’ markets or organic providores is helping support biodiversity.

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