The Last Turnip
We heft a box onto the shaded veranda’s porch swing and divvy up the spoils between our canvas totes. “Two baskets of strawberries—let’s have some now.” “Do you want the avocado or the extra cuke?” “A cabbage and a huge melon—we’ll take them back to the house and split them.” Ava and I belong to a CSA—Community-Supported Agriculture program—that delivers farm-fresh organic produce to my neighborhood every other Friday. Wasting a single leaf or root is unthinkable, and there’s always more than either of us, with our respective mates, can eat our way through in two weeks, so we share a box.
It’s Christmas morning each time we unpack our bounty. Augmenting the farm’s celebrated heirloom tomatoes in summer and the strawberries that taste like spring itself from February through June, is a rotating cornucopia: celery, cucumbers, carrots, cabbage and cauliflower, radishes, avocados, broccoli and beans, onions and peppers, summer and winter squash, leafy greens of every hue and variety, enough root vegetables to stock a bomb shelter. Fruit and herbs too, everything in its season, but here in San Diego many crops yield their abundance year ‘round.
I eat—and like—beets for the first time in decades when they first appear in the box. As a child I worried that their seeping bloody juices would taint my rice or potatoes. A woman at the pick-up site says she’s “up to here” with Swiss chard, but I never tire of it, or kale, trendy since it was reported to have the highest nutrients of any vegetable. Or those exotic Asian greens, like mizuna. But Ava and I fight over the mustard greens, bitter and overpowering: “You take them.” “No, you.”
Ava travels for a month every summer. When I unload the first box after she’s gone, I’m elated to find three varieties of tomatoes, including my favorite, Cherokee Purple. Mine, all mine! I open a bag with six turnips. Another bag, six more turnips. Mine. All mine.
I’d give them away, but if you’ve grown zucchini, you know what it’s like. You can’t get rid of them. Friends see you coming, lock their doors, close the curtains. Turnips are worse—people scrunch their faces up as if they smell a rotting carcass: “Ewww, what would I do with those?” There’s no room in my pudgy apartment-sized refrigerator, no counter, shelf or floor space. I line them up on top of the fridge, at eye level. I see features—eyes, noses and mouths—in their moon-like faces. They watch from between their flat tops and chin whiskers as I move between stove and sink.
I consult Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables, a gorgeous book with delicate illustrations in a palette of muted greens, reds and yellows. Each entry includes a history, when and where it grows, and recipes. Turnips—tucked between tomatoes and watercress—are in the mustard family, best in the spring when young and tender. It’s mid-summer, and these are past their prime. I find hundreds of recipes online: caramelized, creamed, curried; in casseroles, soups, stews and soufflés. With bacon, with fruit and sugar like the salad with canned pineapple.
After settling in with my brood over the weekend, I’m ready. I stir-fry one with onions, cabbage, tofu and brown rice. “It’s a keeper,” says my sidekick. I download a recipe for those neon pink pickled turnips served in Middle Eastern restaurants. Vinegar, salt, sugar, and purple beet slices to infuse them with that fuchsia flush; I fill two jars. Three down, nine to go. A trusty mash with potatoes and carrots, garlic, butter and cream, served with pan-fried catfish, vinegared greens and cornbread. My Kentucky-born spouse gives the meal a big “Woo-hoo.” I put them in salads with cooked rice and canned tuna. And latkes—I make them with potatoes and zucchini, why not turnips?
Did you ever grow sweet potato or avocado vines in glasses of water on the kitchen sill and watch them spread, grabbing and clinging, weaving their tendrils around cupboards and appliances? When a turnip sends out shoots, I put it in water in a jam jar, held aloft with toothpicks. In a short time the tops spring up several inches, and a bristly beard sprouts from its submerged chin.
I read historical data, quotes and poems, trivia. There are turnip festivals held annually in Vermont and Switzerland. And in San Diego at least once: a friend tells about one of her college professors in the ‘60s who threw a turnip fest at his back-country abode. There were turnips shot out of an improvised cannon, turnips in various preparations, turnip wine.
About halfway through my crop of rugged roots, I visit my chiropractor. She belongs to the same CSA, and we compare notes. She asks, “What did you do with the rutabagas?” “Huh?” I say, “Rutabagas?”
Turnips are small, smooth, white with purple tops. Rutabagas are bigger, rough-textured, yellow. I know that. These little guys of mine are white, ok, off-white, and their tops are purplish. But when I see photos, there’s no confusing the two. They’re different species: turnips (Brassica rapa rapa)—existing since Paleolithic times—have twenty chromosomes; rutabagas (Brassica napobrassica), an 18th-century hybrid, have thirty-eight. Alice Waters doesn’t have an entry for rutabagas, just a token mention on the turnip page. In England they’re called yellow turnips or “swedes” (from the Swedish rotabagge—root bag); Scots call them “neeps” and serve them with haggis. The Irish used to carve them and fill them with hot coals to ward off evil spirits during the autumn harvest, forerunners to our Jack-o-Lanterns.
Undaunted, I carry on, more stir-fries, salads, a curry with apples. I mash up the last two. They won’t keep any longer or I’d save them for Ava—“See what you missed?” But the specimen in the window is thriving. Its plumage is regal, an emerald-green chapeau worthy of opening day at Ascot. I make a face with colorful beads, buttons and fancy-headed pins. A souvenir of summer’s rich bounty: “Welcome-home, Ava.”
Alice Lowe reads and writes about food and family, Virginia Woolf, and life. Her work has appeared in more than 20 literary journals, including Upstreet, Hippocampus, Switchback, Prime Number, Phoebe, and Hobart. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. A monograph, "Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction" was published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at.