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The Turnip Man is a sprightly Canadian centenarian who still rides a bicycle. His real name is Emery Kilmer, of London, Ontario, and he celebrated his 100th birthday on October 1, 2002.

"We called him the turnip man because he used to come play cards with his car full of turnips and sell them for 25-cents apiece," says Geraldine Martin, who has been playing cards with Kilmer for 20 years. ("I used to give those away," Kilmer chips in). - London (Ontario) Free Press.

We don't know whether eating tons of turnips accounts for Emery's remarkable fitness, but mangold wurzels, those football-size turnips English farmers grow for sheep and cattle feed, were once used to cure coughs.

"One use of wurzels not widely known was as an excellent cough cure," says Joan F. Basden, whose father, Richard Blacklocks, grew them on an 11-acre farm in Romney Marsh, Kent, in the 1920s and 30s. "Slices about half an inch thick were interlaced with brown sugar and allowed to stand. A thick syrup, ideal for children with whooping cough, was produced."

Scots eat a lot of turnips, a word they shorten to neeps. "Haggis is traditionally served as 'haggis, neeps and tatties,'" says Judy Creighton, in The Canadian Press. "The neeps are mashed turnip or swede, with a little milk and allspice added, and the tatties are creamed potatoes flavoured with nutmeg."

What's the difference between turnips and swedes? On October 1 - the London (Ontario) Turnip Man's birthday - the London (England) newspaper The Times published a letter from Dr Nick O'Donovan, of Havant, Hampshire. He said that when he asked a local shop assistant for a swede he was given a large, orange- fleshed vegetable. When he asked for a turnip he was shown a much smaller, whitish vegetable with a green top. "I wonder at which junction of the M1 this nomenclature changes, and why?" he asked.

That letter led to a string of replies from other readers:

  • Mark Wilson, from Nottingham, took a survey of the company tearoom which, he said, suggested the border to be Yorkshire, with Nottinghamshire and Cheshire clearly in the "South."  Lancashire was divided, with Manchester supporting the South but other areas applying the northern interpretation. On very small samples the Irish Republic and New Zealand seemed to follow the northern pattern while the US opted for the southern. Australia was apparently too dry to grow either vegetable.
  • Ruth Parker,  from Mousehole (pronounced  mowzel, please!), Penzance, Cornwall wrote that in England's far south-west, a turnip was a large orange vegetable, an essential ingredient of a Cornish pasty.
  • London football fan Peter Tray wrote: that in Northern Ireland "the big orange thingy is a turnip, the small whitish one a white turnip, and a swede is the England football coach."
  • From Düsseldorf, Germany, Paul A. James recalled that as boys on Tyneside he and his friends used to make lanterns from turnips on Hallowe'en.  "It took an eternity to hollow out the hard orange flesh of the 'snadgey' (as we called them) and then carve the ghoulish features," he said. "I can still recall the smell as the flame of the night-light roasted the lid of the lantern. Kids these days have it so much easier with the soft, yielding flesh of the pumpkin."
  • Keith Virgo, of Newmarket, quoted The Oxford Book of Food Plants' description of turnip "roots" as yellow or white and swede "roots" as purple, white or yellow. The turnip was an ancient vegetable, but the swede was introduced in Europe only in the 17th century, he said, adding that if Cornish pasties had an older history, they must have contained turnip.
  • Dr F. W. Taylor, of Oxford, said that in his youth in rural Northumberland, a turnip was invariably known as a bagie (pronounced with a long a, like 'baygie'). "I never knew the origin of this," he said, "but my Swedish-American wife assures me it has to be a contraction of rutabaga, the name by which it is (also universally) known in her home state of Minnesota."
  • Peter Stamford, of Port Elgin, Ontario, Canada,  wrote "The swede sounds a more upmarket vegetable in Ontario, where it is called a rutabaga. This name, I believe, is derived from the Swedish dialect rotabagge, meaning 'root bag.'"
  • Finally, John Holliday, of Leeds, West Yorkshire, wrote that John Reynolds (1703-79), a pioneering yeoman farmer of Adisham, near Canterbury - and John's great (times five) grandfather - was responsible for the inadvertent introduction into the UK of the swede or, as he then chose to call it, "the turnep rooted cabbage", when an incorrect variety of seed from the Continent was delivered to him.

Americans seems to have solved the problem. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary says that a TURNIP (name probably derived from turn + neep; from the well-rounded root) is either of two biennial herbs of the mustard family with thick edible roots: (1) Brassica rapa rapifera with usually flattened roots and leaves that are cooked as a vegetable, or (2) Rutabaga. It adds that a turnip is also a large pocket watch.

The minutes of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (now the Royal Society of Arts) for November 23, 1768, solemnly recorded: A motion was made that a Bounty of Fifty Pounds be given to Mr Reynolds for his Introduction of the turnep rooted Cabbage not heretofore made use (of) in this Country, but more especially for his particular attention to the views of this Society by divulging his Discoveries to the World through their means. Agreed to.



Copyright © 2002

Eric Shackle

Story first posted December 2002

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