Pilgrim Seasonings

Plymouth Colony Foodways: Notes and Recipes from a 17th Century Kitchen

The Enormous Turnip

February 28th, 2012 by KM Wall

A re-run from February 19, 2009, My So-Called Pilgrim Life


Turnips in the Howland garden.

It was such a lovely day, with the thaw and all, so Justin and I went down to the 1627 Village to see how the gardens were doing. It’s really interesting to see where the snow has and hasn’t melted, and to see what were such large pile of manure becoming much smaller piles of compost – just in time for spring top dressing.
Justin had left some plants for seed in the Howland garden. That’s when we saw it – the Enormous Turnip. There were several other, more turnip sized turnips, but this one…. I HAD to have it. Alrighty – I’m rather turnip mad, but when I went to weigh this one, I had to move to the baby scale because it was too big for the regular scale. I weighed in at THIRTEEN POUNDS. Almost thirteen pounds, one ounce. Yep, that’s one big turnip. The turnips we grow here are a variety know as Eastham turnips, which do have a tendency to grow big. Seeing turnips this big, you can understand how before pumpkins were popular, that it was turnips that were carves out and had candles put in them for lanterns. Eastham turnips are local turnips – Eastham is on Cape Cod. I was first introduced to Eastham turnips by Carolyn Crowell of Crow Farm in Sandwich (MA). Carolyn grew up on Crow Farm, had a career as a home ec teacher, and then became a pilgrim. She probably knew more about farming then some of the original Mayflower passengers. Eastham turnips were the turnip she was raised on. She finally retired from the pilgrim life – to work in the farm department! Talking to people all day long wore her out more than tossing around bales of hay. She had her eightieth birthday a while back. Our potters made her a seventeenth century style pitcher – with a flowering turnip design motif.
Now, as proud as Eastham is of their turnips, Westport (MA) also has turnip bragging rights. I got some Westport turnips at the Farmer’s Market this summer, mistaking them at first for Easthams because they look that much alike. As far as I can tell the biggest difference is that Easthams have their festival and Westports have an historic marker. But back to the enormous turnips……
At thirteen pounds, I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d find when I cut it open. With the first cut, sure enough there are the tell-tale signs of A Very Hungry Caterpillar. But more cutting, and peeling, and a little trimming left me with six pounds of perfectly fine turnip. I dare say if I were hungrier or had a family to feed it could have been closer to eight pounds of good turnip. I parboiled it in lightly salted water for about ten minutes, drained and then some went into a casserole dish with a little salt and pepper and a nice bath of light cream. Into a 350 oven. The rest went into a pan on top of the stove with a little water, white wine vinegar (about 2 ounces of each) and tablespoon of sugar, mixed it up and let it simmer. About twenty minutes later I took the casserole out of the oven, stirred it up and mashed down any bits that weren’t under cream, which was getting nice and thick and added a little butter on top, maybe 2 tablespoons. Stirred the pan in the stove and all was well with the world. Washed and chopped some fresh sage. Another twenty minutes (or was it twenty-five?) the casserole came out of the oven, got another stir and mash and it was ready to serve. Added the sage to the turnips on the stove, the vinegar mellowing nicely with the sugar. It smelled terrific. Took a taste and added a few more leaves of sage and it was ready to serve. This sage and turnip recipe is one we use in the 1627 English Village. The recipe calls for cooking the turnips in wine after their first boil – I use a 1627 English Village substitute of vinegar and water with a little sugar.
You would think a turnip that big and that old would be rank and/or woody, but it was sweet, fragrant, delicious, delectable – even people who don’t ordinarily like turnips liked these.
So, the lessons learned are: 1) you can keep turnips in the ground through February, even in New England IF you grow the right turnips in the first place; 2) changing the water takes away turnip rankness; 3) cream is a great improver of just about any food; 4) it’s harder to cook seventeenth century recipes in a twenty-first century kitchen if you’re used to cooking them over a wood fire in iron pots. I felt compelled to measure everything in modern kitchen. In the early modern kitchen I trust myself to know what’s enough.

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3 Responses to “The Enormous Turnip”

  1. Rick says:

    I did not know that changing the turnip water took away bitterness. Thanks! Carolyn Crowell for president!!!

  2. pam williams says:

    My mother, from St. Mary’s County Maryland (a place ALMOST as old as the Pilgrims!) who cooked in what I like to call “the old St. Mary’s way,” ALWAYS said changing out water would take away bitterness from things. In St. Mary’s, kale is the “national veggie.” Turnips are second – and she mashed them like you did, Kathleen…am now very nostalgic and turnip-hungry!
    Ms. Pammy in Maryland

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