Friday, July 17, 2009

Turnips, by many other names.

Lets be brutally honest here - the turnip is not a sexy vegetable. It is too old, for sure - being an ancient crone of the vegetable kingdom, unable to claim even the slightest residual menopausal allure. It is the wrong shape, probably – being centrally obese rather than asparagusly phallic-like. It is wintry and old-fashioned rather than light (or lite) and trendy, and poor and wholesome rather than rich and elegant. It is decidedly not exotic.

The turnip has changed its name regularly over the centuries, perhaps in a series of desperate attempts to re-brand itself, but, sadly, to no avail. Once upon a time in ancient times it was neeps – as it still is in some resolutely old-fashioned Celtic parts of the world. At some point it became rapes – a misguided choice of name, considering the other connotations of the word. At some other (turning?) point it became tourn- or turn-neeps – but it would take a linguistics expert to unravel the significance of that quantum change. One variety took on an exotic foreign persona as the swede, but still could not manage to look tall, blond, and sexy.

Even a wealthy, hard-working sponsor did not help. The the eighteenth century gentleman farmer ‘Turnip’ Townshend got his nickname (his avatar?) on account of his great interest in the vegetable. The problem may be that he emphasised its useful, practical, agricultural value of the turnip – not its culinary significance. Perhaps he should have written a turnip cookbook. However hard you look at it, it seems that the turnip cannot shake its pedestrian, poverty-associated image.

The only slight chance the turnip has to gain any hint of sexiness, in my view, is to refuse to answer to anything other than its French name of navets – a drastic re-branding idea that seems to be working in respect of prunes vs dried plums.


The staple of the poor, historically, has been some form of bread – particularly bread that does not use too much aristocratic, expensive wheat. To bulk out bread dough – albeit at the expense of good bread texture – almost any starch will do. The turnip, being cheap and easily grown even in despicable climates, was ideal. Here is how you do it, according to William Salmon’s Household Companion of 1695. It sounds quite tasty – and medicinal too.

Turnip bread.
Take about half a Bushel of middling sort of Turnips, not sticky, but such as will boil soft: being pared and boiled, press out the Water very hard until they are quite dry, beat them in a Mortar, and mix with the Pulp about two pound of fine Wheat-flower, and two ounces of Carraway-seeds; put in a pint, or somewhat more of new Ale-yeast, mould it up as other Bread, and let it be well soaked, and it will not only look, but tast like Bread. This is not only made for saving Charges in poor Families in a dear Year, but of late has been much in esteem for Consumptions, and those troubled with shortness of Breath and Ptissick; being very wholesome and nourishing.


Quotation of the Day.

One who is proud of ancestry is like a turnip; there is nothing good of him but that which is underground.
Samuel Butler (1835-1902)

3 comments:

KT said...

What a great post. I am still working on warming up to turnips. They are bitter to me...

Love the quote.

Anonymous said...

They are bitter but you can add SOME slices, boiled potatoes or carrots to get rid of the taste with some butter and salt and pepper. TRY IT YOU WILL LIKE IT.

Anonymous said...

If you boil the diced turnips in beef bouillon it really adds to the flavor and cuts some of the bitterness.