“‘…but gracious me! It’s getting light!
Good night, old Turnip-top, good-night!’
A nod, and he was gone.”
So ends the sixth canto of Phantasmorgia by Lewis Carroll (better known for having written the topsy-turvy classic Alice in Wonderland), with the parting sally of a young phantom as he leaves the residence of the narrator, whom he had just begun to haunt (spoiler alert) in error.
It is one of two childhood references to the turnip that have stayed with me, the other a small hardcover book entitled The Enormous Turnip, in which each page introduces a new character who adds his or her strength in an attempt to unearth the behemoth. I know now that a turnip that size would have most likely been hollow or at the very least spongy, but it evidently worked better for the storyline than The Moderately-apportioned Turnip, so one can hardly blame the lesser known Tolstoy who brought it out of Russian folklore and into our childhood cannon.
For myself I grew small to mid-size golden turnips last year (purple-top varieties tend to be bigger), and they have kept very well in the root cellar. I dug out a bag this week to discover lots of new growth, but all stemming from the turnip itself (as opposed to a bag of moldy carrots that I’m sorry to say ended up mostly going to the chickens).
I remember reading a delighted chef’s description of a dish in which the winter-growth of just such a root were used to garnish a soup made from the same, and I can’t agree more at the suitability of the pairing. (Digression: for a fascinating look at a Paris-trained Michelin-y type working on ultra-local haute cuisine in the backwoods of Sweden look up Fäviken.) Back to the turnips.
I thought I would try out a meal involving turnip three-ways to celebrate this tuber, which in my last few years of gardening I have found to languish depressingly far down on my fellow planters’ lists of most delicious roots. I still have a few jars of the sauerruben (salt-fermented grated turnip) I made last fall which is no less divine than it was three months ago, and this I tossed with some lentil sprouts for an instant salad, the brine from the ferment serving as its own dressing. For the rest I made a simple soup of onions, garlic, turnips and a few small potatoes. I used homemade chicken broth and headed in a light curry direction with the spices, blending half of the finished soup for a little creaminess. I reserved the burgeoning buds and chopped them fine for the final garnish, after stirring a spoonful of yoghurt and a dollop of chive pesto from the freezer into each bowl. Yum!
Now that the body’s appetite has been satiated, I intend on putting my feet up with a copy of The Humorous Verse of Lewis Carroll. Although if any small neighbours come knocking I might find myself telling the tale of The Enormous Turnip; I bet I don’t even need the book.
Terms of Endearment
Could there be a language in which the most pedestrian of roots is used to denote affection? Two and half thousand years ago there just might have been, when the Greek poet Sappho composed the following verse: “I implore you, Turnip, Show yourself to me!”
To be fair, a woman in Sappho’s inner circle was called Gongyla, which bears a striking resemblance to the modern Greek for turnip, γογγυλι – so this might be an overly literal translation by someone with a penchant for vegetables. But listen, sweetpea, it’s not as far-fetched as you might think; legumes and cole crops, mon petit chou, are already staples in the amorous vocabularies of English and French.