Sweet Turnip Love

Sweet Turnip Love

By Anita Rafael

Turnips taste like medicine!”—and we’re here to tell you once and for all that’s just not true when it comes to the official Vermont state vegetable, the creamy and sweet Gilfeather turnip. Two years ago, the Green Mountain State adopted this heirloom variety of turnip as one of its state symbols, because, historically speaking, it is “rooted” in Vermont. Believed to have been first cultivated as, perhaps, a hybrid by a bachelor farmer named John Gilfeather on a rocky farm up an unpaved lane on a steep hillside in Wardsboro, this turnip is—well, unturnipy. Here’s why.

 Farmer John Gilfeather, 1865–1944. Gilfeather never married. COURTESY OF GILFEATHER FARM, BOB & CAROL BACKUS

Farmer John Gilfeather, 1865–1944. Gilfeather never married. COURTESY OF GILFEATHER FARM, BOB & CAROL BACKUS

Although turnips exist in the wild as members of the Brassica family (you can forage for wild mustards, which are related), the Gilfeather turnip shares some of the traits of every heirloom vegetable in that its identity is linked primarily to the fact that it has a unique appearance and its own distinctive taste. True Gilfeathers are heavy for their size, often quite knobby, and typically root-hairy, homely tubers. When harvested, they have a greenish tinge on the upper part. They are not petite, pretty, and purple like supermarket turnips. Inside, Gilfeathers are creamy and white, not tan or yellowish. And, Gilfeathers do not have that acrid aftertaste like other turnips. As if by magic, when left in the ground for the winter’s first few hard frosts, the turnips acquire a near-candy sweetness that is not lost during cooking. Any chef who adds maple syrup or brown sugar to a recipe for Gilfeather turnips is adding sugar to sugar, like frosting on a cookie, and who doesn’t love frosting on cookies? We’ve seen people who wince and stick out their tongues at the very thought of eating turnips, practically lick the bottom of the bowl when served a velvety cousin of vichyssoise—a hot, creamy Gilfeather turnip soup. Especially the one that is served at Vermont’s annual Gilfeather Turnip Festival in Wardsboro. For a few hours, on only one day at the end of October, the first floor of the village’s town hall is redecorated as the “Turnip Café” where the main attraction is turnip soup.

Vermont’s only annual turnip party is run by the Friends of the Wardsboro Library, a small, all-volunteer nonprofit. It is no exaggeration that the incredible number of people who love this one particular kind of turnip have supped so many bowls of turnip soup and have filled enough bags of turnips to take home to make more soup that the event’s profits have covered a significant part of the cost of restoring, operating, maintaining, and supporting Wardsboro’s public library for the past 15 years. Yes, a big, sweet turnip did all that, and so much more.

 In 2016, Governor Peter Shumlin signed a bill naming the Gilfeather turnip the state vegetable. PHOTOS COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF THE WARDSBORO LIBRARY

In 2016, Governor Peter Shumlin signed a bill naming the Gilfeather turnip the state vegetable. PHOTOS COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF THE WARDSBORO LIBRARY

Here are a few additional facts to have handy about the Vermont state vegetable when you serve Gilfeathers at this year’s holiday dinners!

  • Look for Gilfeathers in the farmers’ markets in late autumn. They won’t be harvested until the first frost or later.
  • There are dissenters! Some people claim it’s really a rutabaga, but we’ve yet to see the DNA tests, so don’t be misled. There are no “Gilfeather rutabagas” on the farm trucks.
  • If you have a very old cookbook, there may be traditional recipes in it that call for peeling and boiling “Swedes.” They are not referring to Scandinavians, but to turnips. Or maybe rutabagas.
  • The Slow Food Ark of Taste, an international catalog of foods, registered the Gilfeather turnip because it is a successful example of the preservation of a local agricultural tradition.
  • It is easy to grow Gilfeather turnips from seed in your own garden, but start early in the springtime, and give it lots of room. The plants can grow very large. The prize winner at last year’s Turnip Contest (a humorous highlight of the Turnip Festival) weighed 25.8 pounds, and the blue ribbon went to a young boy named Braiden Pearson. It was his third time as the champ, and no, he does not reveal his secrets for cultivating his turnip giants.
  • When the political speeches were going on throughout 2015 and 2016 at the statehouse in Montpelier, among the reasons given as to why the Gilfeather turnip is a fitting state symbol was this: “Some of us come from many generations of living in Vermont, and some of us moved here two months ago. But like the Gilfeather turnip, we are tough skinned, we putdown strong roots, and after a tough challenge like a killing frost, we come out sweeter.”

 

IT’S A PARTY FOR A VEGETABLE!

THE 16TH ANNUAL GILFEATHER TURNIP FESTIVAL & GILFEATHER TURNIP CONTEST
Saturday October 27, 2018
10am–3pm
rain, snow, or shine
Main Street, Wardsboro
Admission free; parking $3. Restrooms available. Festival information and Gilfeather Turnip Contest entry rules at 802-896-3416 or friendsofwardsborolibrary.org and wardsborovermont.com

 An entry in the annual Gilfeather Turnip Contest weighing in at 25.1 pounds. PHOTOS COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF THE WARDSBORO LIBRARY

An entry in the annual Gilfeather Turnip Contest weighing in at 25.1 pounds. PHOTOS COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF THE WARDSBORO LIBRARY