The tap at the door was so light, the dogs didn’t even notice. The house was buttoned up tight in preparation for the cold already hinted at in the north wind, so that even a neighbor bearing gifts could creep on the porch, barely noticed (and certainly unrecognizable through the windows, covered in plastic sheeting).
His annual visits were like clockwork. He didn’t aim to stay, but just drop off his bounty. The turnips he grew were left humbly, with no fanfare, in bags and cardboard boxes by the front door, a simple testament to the nearby farm and fields he tended well into his 90s.
The white and purple globes, scrubbed clean to the point of glowing, were much appreciated by my parents, who ate them throughout the fall and into winter, steamed and boiled and mashed with butter or roasted alongside carrots with pork and beef roasts in a gravy broth.
One year, when I visited my folks around Halloween, I got to join in on the neighbor’s generous turnip crop. Some of the roots were enormous, nearly small cabbage size. Since we had watched a recent special on the history of Halloween and learned that it was turnips, not pumpkins, originally carved as jack o’ lanterns in Ireland during those early harvest celebrations, I asked my mom if I could take one of the larger turnips and give it a go.
That old expression of how you can’t get blood from a turnip could also be applied to the challenges of wrenching a jack o’ lantern from one, too. Still, I was determined, and in the span of an afternoon — and with the help of one of my dad’s honed-to-hairsplitting knives — had hollowed and carved the veggie, quite crudely, into a rough symbol of Halloween. We put a tiny tea light candle inside the turnip to illuminate. While the glow of jack o’ lanterns was originally meant to scare off spirits in the night, I would say my turnip jack’s smell — as the candle par roasted it from within — would also do the job.
Even though the pumpkin (way easier to carve and much more festive-looking) replaced the turnip at Halloween, cultivating turnips for culinary use (as well as feed for livestock) began early in America, inspired by the likes of Charles “Turnip” Townsend, an Englishman who in the 1700s “developed a system of rotating grain crops with turnips,” according to “The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink,” edited by Andrew Smith (Oxford University Press, Inc.; 2007).
Turnip roots have long been traditionally cooked similarly to potatoes (boiling and mashing), as reflected in early cookbooks, such as Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery” (1748), where she also suggested using them to make wine. Turnip greens, also quite tasty, were adopted by the American South as a beloved soul-food side, slow-cooked with smoked fatty meats, similar to mustard greens or collards. Turnips and their cousins, the mysterious (and, yes, delicious) rutabagas are actually in the mustard family.
While some turn up their noses at eating the humble turnip, I’ve always been fond of them, as a child enjoying a crunchy slice of raw turnip with a little sprinkling of salt. Their spicy, just shy of bitter taste and tight, crisp texture gives them more body and bite than a starchy potato, and mixing them in the spud mash will breathe new life into an old favorite. Expanding on their potato-like possibilities, one could also use turnips in gratins or other cheesy bakes. Turnips can be roasted and maple-glazed or pureed into soups. Raw, they can be sliced into crispy crudité for a veggie-and-dip platter, shredded into slaws or salads (as can their tops, too), or chopped up for a textural garnish.
Maybe, if you are lucky enough to have extra-large turnips and time to whittle away, you could take a stab at carving a turnip to get in touch with one of Halloween’s oldest roots.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily
News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
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