Turnip has graced tables for 4,000 years

by Betty Wrenn Day - Posted on Jul 27, 2011 - 05:05 PM

The turnip has been around longer than you might think; in fact, about 4,000 years. It is thought first to have been cultivated in the Near East.

Photo: Turnips, more precisely turnip roots, are ancient vegetables that have not always been appreciated as a great food resource. Photo by Betty Wrenn Day.

Turnips, more precisely turnip roots, are ancient vegetables that have not always been appreciated as a great food resource. Photo by Betty Wrenn Day.

This Brassica root crop was once used by the Romans to throw at unpopular people. The low esteem associated with this vegetable may have been influenced by the fact that it was the primary food of poor country people in ancient Greece and Rome. Yet there were a few upper-class Romans who ate turnips but masked them with cumin and honey. As time passed, turnips became more popular with the Greeks and Romans and they developed several new varieties.

The turnip’s popularity spread throughout Europe and it continues today, but once the potato was introduced, the turnip became much less cultivated. The nature of turnips then was far different from the present-day turnip.

The turnip, more precisely turnip root, is an excellent food source for humans, and has also been a popular livestock fodder. Animals have been fed turnips for at least 600 years. Prior to Charles Townsend bringing turnips to the United Kingdom, farmers killed their livestock before winter because they had nothing to feed them, as growing and storing hay for winter was too expensive. Once it was discovered that animals could eat and fatten up on turnips, this vegetable that thrives in cold and damp climates became a mainstay for farmers. They could then begin slaughtering their animals only when meat was needed.

Turnips were introduced to North America by early European settlers and colonists. The root vegetable grew well in the South, thus becoming a popular food in local cuisine. It is said that turnip greens (tops of the turnip roots) became an integral part of Southern African-American cuisine, thus later adopted into the southern food culture, because of the role they played during the days of slavery. The slave owners would reserve the turnip roots for themselves, giving the leaves to the slaves. African slaves out of necessity adopted turnip greens as a major food source.