Weekends at my grandparents’ farm often included Saturday morning pancakes, blackberry picking, fishing … and turnip snacks before bedtime. I was not the least bit insulted that while Grammy cut slices of the white and purple vegetable, she alternated between feeding me and the dog.
Turnips have gone from being a common treat to mystifying the checkout girl at our local grocery. I was reminded of those late night turnips recently as I began to prepare for Halloween. It you haven’t already figured out, I’m a plant geek. So while other parents happily tote home pumpkins for their kids to decorate, I try to persuade mine to carve turnips. Turnips were, after all, the original focus of the Jack-o’-lantern tradition.
The story varies, as all stories do. Jack either made a deal with the devil never to take his soul or he escaped from the fiery pit. Either way, because he fit neither in the land of the living nor beyond, he was doomed to travel the world looking for a final resting place. He is said to have carved his favorite vegetable up and placed a hot coal in it to guide him through the darkness.
Turnips (Brassica rapa) are important features of many myths and tales around the world. The story of Jack first appeared in Ireland some 300 years ago. Irish mythology this time of year welcomes winter. What better vegetable to do that than a root crop that serves as an important winter staple crop, capable of keeping well in cold storage?
Turnips fell nicely into a centuries-old tradition of carving lanterns into vegetables for light owing to their sturdy nature. They also have an astonishing list of benefits as food as well as medicine.
High in fiber, this cousin to broccoli is believed to lower the risk of digestive imbalance, some forms of cancer and high blood pressure. Turnips are packed with vitamin B, C and potassium.
Whether you roast turnips or just eat them raw, they are mild and delicious. Use the greens as well, so as to make use of every part of this readily available vegetable. Growing them for yourself is easy. They mature in just two months so you can do multiple plantings. Turnips like full sun and acidic, well-drained soil. Like most of the other members of this family, they like compost. Be sure to feed them well, but don’t allow the soil to get boggy or they will rot. The best times to pick the roots are spring and fall when small turnips are sweetest.
Winter storage is easy, too. Either add a thick layer of mulch over plants left in the ground or pull them, remove the greens and store in the refrigerator or root cellar.
It wasn’t until the tradition of carving vegetables into lanterns came to the new world that the pumpkin took the place of the turnip. The pumpkin is like the child’s animated version of an old black-and-white horror classic. Personally, if you’re going for scary, I say carve a turnip.