23 February 2014

The Turnip

You know that annoying trend of striving for authenticity?  It has something to do with artisanal axes, mason jars, rugged work boots, leatherwork, Herschel backpacks, and a commitment to a simpler life and farmer’s markets?  But you know how there’s also nothing there?  How none of these things are authentic, but are actually totally artificial, contrived, and empty?  That’s what a turnip is. Almost.  It doesn’t quite work as a theory, but I think that if I just force it hard enough, I might be able to come up with something that almost comes close to resembling something or other (or not).

Bizarrely, turnips might simultaneously be the most authentic thing in the world, but also the most meaningless and vapid.  Does that make them art?  I don’t know.  Probably not, because turnips are not artificial or contrived; unfortunately they are all too real.  They are probably also the next big thing in the relentless search for authentic living.  Nothing is as rugged or as simple as a turnip, and turnips are so disgusting that the only way someone could actually eat one is ironically.  Turnips are important for an authentic lifestyle because they signify poverty, desperation, and a sallow, Irish complexion.

Given the latter signification, it should come as no surprise that Samuel Beckett employed them in Waiting for Godot as one of many absurdities within a desolate and meaningless wasteland: of course as you spend the rest of your miserable and absurd life waiting for something that is never going to come (is it God?!) amidst an apocalyptic landscape it will be a turnip that you pull out of your pocket.  This association might be a quality of root vegetables in general because I believe Vladimir also retrieves a carrot and a radish from his pocket (and in all fairness, tonight I had garden carrots from this summer that had been properly stored in a root cellar, and they were delicious—root vegetables truly are a thing of magic).*  All of this is to say is that I have never been given the impression that people eat a turnip because they choose to.
This turnip ... this turnip ...  tiny little thing ... out into this ... what? No!... yes ... tiny little thing ... tiny little thing ...
tiny little turnip ... where! over there! staring, staring ... stop and stare ... where? over there! Gaaaawd ...

…Which makes the fact that we used to have to eat a revolting mashed up mixture of turnips and corn for Thanksgiving dinner extremely confusing. I get that there are certain foods that I think are gross, like salad or baked mushroom caps, that other people think are delicious. But surely no one actually thinks that puréed turnips mixed with puréed corn is good, right?  And let me tell you something: it wasn't the corn that was disgusting (although puréed corn is also obviously disgusting), it was the turnip.  Because there is something distinctly unpleasant about a turnip.  I’m not sure how to describe the taste, but the closest comparison I can think of is as if you accidentally ate one of those big chunks of crumbly rot on a potato.  Like, how if you expect something to taste a certain way, but when you bite into it there's an unexpected piece of rot, and so it kind of tastes a bit sweet (but in a bad, rotting way) and maybe also a bit bitter?  Who knows.  It's been a long time since I've eaten a turnip.

There's a famous Russian folktale about a giant turnip that presumably we all know.  I guess the moral of the story is something about how even the smallest and most overlooked members of society are important and needed for accomplishing goals, or that we need to work together, or whatever.  But all I ever got from this story is that humanity is made up of a bunch of dullards, and that those on top are just as stupid as those on the bottom.  Who would ever invest that much time and expel that much energy on getting their hands on a turnip? The moral also doesn't really hold water because the grandfather probably lost more strength throughout the process than the mouse was ultimately able to contribute.  Had he just enlisted the help of the grandmother, the granddaughter, the cat, and the dog from the very beginning when he saw that there was a giant turnip in his garden that was larger than him it probably would have been fine.  It's also unclear what exactly the family intends to do with this giant turnip once it's out of the ground.  Probably share it, but if I was that dog, cat, or mouse, I don’t think I would be too happy if my reward for helping out two old people and their granddaughter was a piece of turnip.

Turnips definitely don't disgust me like some other foods do.  Some foods inspire in me a state of extreme panic or fear (egg salad sandwich, haggis, spaghetti squash are just three examples among hundreds of thousands), but turnips seem more like an unpleasant chore than anything else, and the easiest way to get through it is just to remind yourself that once it's behind you, you won't have to deal with it for another year.  Even easier would be to not eat them at all because we're all adults and don't have to.

Turnips just don't have a role to play in my life. What could I possibly use one of these things for that I couldn't substitute it for a potato or a carrot or some other edible ground vegetable?  Aren't turnips used for, like, apple juice?  Aren't they so bland that they are capable of just providing a substance with no essence?  Huh.  I guess we kind of inadvertently came full circle on this, because people who are a substance without essence are precisely the kind of people I expect to adopt the turnip any day now as an authentic and meaningful culinary experience.  But there's no meaning in eating a food by choice that has only ever been eaten by necessity throughout history. 

If it doesn’t wet your appetite, what can you do with a turnip?
1. You could build a pyre and burn it.
2. You could give it the cold shoulder and spurn it.
3. If you’re my mum, you could mix it with corn and churn it.
4. And if pulled it from the ground, you could dig a hole and return it. 

*I double-checked that Vladimir did indeed pull out a turnip from his pocket in Waiting for Godot, was surprised to find that the Wikipedia article states that in Act II, "[w]ith no carrots left, Vladimir offers Estragon the pointless choice between a turnip and a radish."  I'm sorry, "the pointless choice"?  Neither option is ideal, but it's hardly a pointless choice.  Having never tried a raw turnip or a radish in any state, it still seems fair to assume that a radish is probably much nicer to eat raw than a turnip is.  I'm basing this on the observation that radishes are indeed often served raw on vegetable plates or in salads, whereas I don't think I have ever seen a turnip served raw or on its own.  On one hand the turnip would be the better choice because it would likely be substantially larger, but on the other hand the radish, although smaller, would probably be much more enjoyable.  I would hardly call that a "pointless choice."  One choice is more likely to sustain you longer in a life of agony, whereas the other offers the potential to bring enough joy to your life to remind you why you might want to extend that miserable life in the first place.


  1. Oh wow. I have so many things to say about this. They're not interesting, or even related, aside from all of them being about turnips.

    Turnips are delicious. They are delicious mashed with creamed corn, they are delicious roasted, and they are especially delicious eaten raw, like an apple. However, most importantly, they are the sole ingredient in sauerreuben, which is the most delicious of all the sauers, and clearly demonstrates the that purpose of a turnip is to be fermented.

    A fun aside: turnips are ludicrously easy to grow. I grew hundreds of them in Nashville one year. The downside is that most people feel the same way you do about the turnip, so there were not very many options for unloading them.

    1. Obviously turnips are easy to grow. Everything disgusting is easy to grow, like squash or cucumbers or zucchinis. They volunteer themselves all over gardens and compost mounds. It's actually impossible to stop growing them.