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COLUMN: The lowly turnip

A fresh mess of turnips.
J.A. Bolton


Most farmers or outdoorsmen have, at some time or the other, pulled up and eaten a raw turnip out of a turnip patch.

Yessir, the lowly turnip has been planted annually for a very long time. Historians tell us that the turnip originated in middle and eastern Asia. It is now planted just about all over the world, although it prefers cooler climates.

Why, just the name “turnip” stands for self-reliance, agreeableness and firmness. Our very ancestors planted and used turnips to help feed themselves and their livestock during the cold winters of the past. 

Turnips can be eaten raw but it’s better to peel the skin off because the skin makes it taste bitter. Why, you can slice up a mess of turnips and use them in a salad or bake or boil them. To add flavor to the turnips, I boil a pork chop or pork spare rib and then add the sliced turnips in with plenty of salt and pepper into the pork broth. Add a cake of cornbread and you have yourself a nice meal.

Smaller turnips don’t seem to taste as bitter as large ones do, but please don’t throw the big ones away. You can slice a small Irish potato in with your larger turnips, add a teaspoon of sugar, and your turnips will taste great. 

Along with the roots of the turnips, the greens growing on top are also great to eat. They need to be young and tender and can be broken off or cut off with a pair of shears. They need to be washed thoroughly, placed in a salad or boiled ‘til they change colors, and are very limp. Most people then strain off the water and fry them in a little meat grease to add flavor. You can also cook the turnips and greens together if you like.

As with any fresh vegetable, turnips are good for your overall health. Turnips are a low-calorie vegetable, which is ideal for weight loss and dietary fiber. They are loaded with all types of nutrients that our body needs. Why, eating fresh turnips will protect our digestive system from things such as peptic ulcers and gastritis. Turnips can help provide us with healthy liver functions and manage diabetes, plus help lower our cholesterol and triglycerides.

Little do children (or adults) know that the lowly turnip was once used to make jack-o-lanterns. Yep, in the British Isles, turnips were used as decorations for fall celebrations such as what we now call Halloween. In fact, many years ago a Druid tradition, called Samhain, marked the passage from summer harvest season to the dark of winter.


Legend has it that huge bonfires were built in fields, and it was believed that fairy spirits lurked in the shadows. To distract these spirits from settling into houses and farms, people removed the flesh out of the inside of a large turnip, carved pitiful looking faces on the outside, and set a candle inside. They would then light the candle and place the jack-o-lanterns along roadways and next to gates to both light the way for travelers and caution any passing fairy against invading their houses or farms.

Why long ago, things got so bad in Ireland and Scotland that children would carve out a large turnip, place a lit candle inside and go from home to home. Their goal was to help guide ancestral spirits of the dead back home. They would then pray with the family of the dead in return for food to eat for themselves.

Not only are turnips good for human consumption but animals like them too. Yessir, plant you a field of turnips in the woods and every deer, cow, goat and sheep around will munch on it. I remember, as a boy growing up on the farm, when our turnips got too big or started heading out with seeds, we would fence in the turnip patch and turn our hogs into it. Why, those hogs would root up and eat every one of those turnips and any other weeds, like nut grass, that might be growing in the patch.

It doesn’t take much land for a family turnip patch. Why, just wait until the fall of the year or early spring to plant. Break up your land, add some compost or fertilizer, level it down with a rake and lightly rake in a few ounces of turnip seed. For myself, I sometimes add a few rutabagas and radish seed to my turnip seed. Won’t be but around two months and you will be eating turnip greens and of course a mess of the lowly turnips fit for a king.

J.A. Bolton is author of “Just Passing Time,” co-author of “Just Passing Time Together,” and just released his new book “Southern Fried: Down-Home Stories,” all of which can be purchased on Amazon. Contact him at ja@jabolton.com.




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