Turnips (Brassica rapa), once a hugely popular vegetable in medieval Europe and for centuries before, have something of an image problem today. While other root vegetables like beets and carrots have their fans, the turnip is considered low class.
Frankly, turnips are low class: low enough that it took very little effort to turn them into domesticated vegetables for human and animal consumption thousands of years ago. In temperate climates, they thrive much of the year and store and ship exceptionally well. Prior to the European discovery of the Americas, they fit the dietary niche of the potato for much of the European world.* Not for anyone who could afford not to eat them, though.
In the southern United States, where turnips are a cool season and winter crop, turnip greens are historically associated with African slaves and their descendants — and therefore poverty. Cooked greens featured prominently in the diets of the Peoples of Africa, so it’s no surprise they turned their attention to this European crop. A pot of greens with leftover ham bone (or whatever other meat was around) created a tasty and nutritious dinner and stretched the little bit of meat that was available. They introduced it to the kitchens of their white owners and employers, and like many other dishes founded in deprivation and poverty, became a signature dish of Southern cuisine.
Today, turnips can be found around the world, in cuisines for the wealthy and the poor. They are grown for pasture forage, for eating the greens and grown for the roots. Turnips greens are available fresh and in cans, and have received attention as a “superfood.” You’ll find turnips greens on the menus of 5 star restaurants.
But what you won’t find is a big display of turnips at your local grocery retailer. The waning popularity of turnips roots hasn’t gone unnoticed by plant breeders, and they have responded with more modern turnips — we’ll talk about a couple of those tomorrow, and why you might want to include them in your garden.
* Potatoes from the Americas displaced turnips as poverty food in Europe for the simple reason they have three times the calories of the turnip. This didn’t turn out entirely well. Ironically, the Americas then became the recipient of hundreds of thousands of starving, ill and destitute Irish, a group whose identity and accomplishments are firmly stamped into the history of Argentina, Canada, the United States and other countries.