Turnips… An Epitaph for a Turnip
Frontier Fare to the Tombstone Epitaph by Barbara Blackburn for July 1999
The vegetable that ruled for several centuries has come down from the list of America’s favorite vegetables. Spunky and time-honored, though, the turnip is still a favorite on some lists. The truth about turnips is that they are often mislabeled as rutabagas, and rutabagas are often called turnips. Of course, another truth is that “you can not get blood from a turnip.”
The turnip’s finest hour occurred at dinner-time in the 16th Century when it was carved in a shape to capture the theme of the meal, and it served as a focal point of the “sallet.” Since then the turnip has fallen from aristocratic favor. A favorite dish concocted by Germans was Himmel and Erde, meaning Heaven and Earth, which captures the history of the turnip. The dish consists of mashed turnips, potatoes, and seasoned apples, earthy foods that together render a heavenly dish.
As a medicinal remedy the turnip was valued for winter maladies. Mixed with suet, mashed turnip and suet cured frozen feet, chilblains, and aching joints. It was used to treat gout, smallpox and measles, and to make a nice “sope” for beautifying the face. Wrinkle-conscious women of middle age used facial masks of cooked turnip cream and rosebuds. Desperate drinkers turned fermented turnips into alcohol.
The popularity of the turnip peeked in the 17th and 18th centuries. Thomas Jefferson grew 10 kinds of turnips. By the 19th Century, the gourmet’s ideal was a gigantic turnip. Thirty-pounders were standard fare, and a grower in California reported harvesting a 100-pound root in 1850. Seed catalogs offered up to 25 varieties. Burpee in 1888 carried 16, including the White Egg, the Cowhorn, and Golden or Orange Jelly.
The success of the turnip paved the way for the rutabaga, arriving from Holland. This “turnip-rooted cabbage” was developed from a series of turnip cabbage crosses. Rutabagas are called Swedish turnips or Swedes.
In many languages the turnip possesses gender: in French and Spanish it’s masculine, while in German it’s feminine. That fact led Mark Twain to remark that a turnip has sex.
I grew up with lots of what my family called turnips, but now I know they were rutabagas even though I call them turnips from habit. For the record, the rutabaga is a root vegetable which belongs to the mustard family and is closely related to kale, kohlrabi, mustard, and turnips. A rutabaga is larger than a turnip; it has smooth yellowish skin and flesh and smooth leaves. The flesh tastes sweet. There are white varieties of rutabagas, lesser known.
The finer-fleshed rutabagas and turnips are eaten as vegetables and the coarser ones are fed to livestock. They are suited well to the root cellar and last through the winter, useful to both man and beast. Both the root and the leaves are nutritious.
The turnip came to the New World via Mexico, arriving in Virginia in 1610 and in New England in 1628. Previous to that historical culinary event, turnips had been grown for 4,000 years, originating in the temperate zone of Europe.
Whatever they are called, both turnips and rutabagas are survival foods, having served pioneers and soldiers. Full of nourishment, the robust vegetable can be cooked in a number of ways.
Rutabagas with salt pork have been favored by rugged cooks in the Ozarks as well as throughout the West. Rutabaga au gratin yields a cheesy casserole. Mashed many different ways, these root vegetables are especially popular with onion. The Pennsylvania Dutch do a nice version of the potato and turnip combination, known as Himmel and Erde.
Pickled turnips are not only American but also mid-Eastern. My father’s mother pickled turnips in Iowa and Colorado, and my mother’s father brought a recipe from Beirut for small white turnips that were partnered and pickled with beets.
In Minnesota where many Scandinavians gathered, the rutabaga ring, like a souffle, is popular. Bacon fat flavors this dish. Fatty meats go very well with turnips, such as duck. Braised duck and turnips can turn border-line turnip fanciers into real fans. Maybe the two terms rutabaga and turnip were interchanged because turnip is a more familiar word to remember. Anyway rutabagas are often called yellow turnips. So you can interchange the two in cooking.
Glazed, scalloped, and stuffed, turnips are versatile. The white or yellow turnip may be French-fried, for shoestring potatoes or baked like a potato. Turnips in cream sauce or Remoulade sauce become gourmet. Fluffy mashed turnips take on more appeal when topped with breadcrumbs and almonds, in the Finnish style. Raw, grated turnips with sour cream dressing make a fine salad on lettuce. Julienned strips of turnips make a good filling inside a mashed potato nest, or mashed sweet potatoes and yellow turnips work well together.
Pioneer children often ate turnips raw as apples, more often from chance than choice. Because it was plenteous and a good keeper, that was the only snack available.
In considering the turnip’s tale, one is reminded of Frances Bacon’s quote: “Fame is like a river that beareth up things light and swollen, and drowns things weighty and solid.” What a fitting epitaph for a turnip!
GERMAN MODE OF COOKING TURNIPS
8 large turnips, pared and diced
4 tablespoons of butter, more or less
1 cup of stock or broth
1 tablespoon of flour
Pepper and salt to taste
Make the butter hot in a saucepan; lay in the turnips, and season them. Toss them over the fire for a few minutes, then add the broth, and simmer till the turnips are tender. Brown the flour with a little butter; add this to the turnips let them simmer another 5 minutes, and serve.
LEMON PARSLEYED TURNIPS
2 cups white turnip sticks
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon snipped parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
1 teaspoon lemon juice (or more)
Cook the turnip sticks in boiling salted water until tender, 20 minutes; drain. Add butter, parsley, onion, and lemon juice. Toss. Serves 4.
RUTABAGA AND APPLE
3 cups pared rutabaga slices (yellow turnip)
1 medium apple, thinly sliced
6 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter
Cook rutabaga slices in boiling salted water till just tender; drain. Place half the rutabaga and apple in a greased 1-quart casserole. Sprinkle with half the brown sugar; dot with half the butter; sprinkle with salt, if desired. Repeat layers. Bake covered at 350 for 30 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.