Photograph by Rosa Say
Photograph by Rosa Say

The Vegetable That Terrorized Romans and Helped Industrialize England

Turnips, traditionally, have had lousy press.

In Roman times, the turnip was the weapon of choice to hurl at unpopular public figures. In the 15th century, “turnip eater” was the common term for a country bumpkin, and in Charles Dickens’s novels, if you called someone a “turnip,” you meant that he or she was a perfect idiot.

During the Civil War, a turnip is what drove Scarlett O’Hara to shake her fist at the heavens and swear that she’d never be hungry again—the implication being that only the starving would stoop to the awful level of turnips. Unfortunately this isn’t far wrong: Turnips, throughout their long and lumpish history, have been the food of cows, pigs, sheep, the desperate, and the poor. (See “How a Food Becomes Famous“)

Turnips, a Last Resort

In the miserable Turnip Winter of World War I, German civilians—due to a failed potato harvest and bread shortages—were reduced to living almost wholly on turnips, a situation which pleased no one, despite the bolstering publication of a helpful cookbook titled “Turnips Instead of Potatoes.” Faced with food shortages during World War II, British citizens also reluctantly turned to turnips. The crowning glory of wartime turnip cuisine was Woolton Pie, a dish invented by François Latry, master chef at London’s Savoy Hotel, and named for Lord Woolton, head of the Ministry of Food.

Lord Woolton did his best to promote his eponymous Pie, even going so far as to be photographed eating it with apparent enjoyment, but nobody was fooled. (“A horrible dish has appeared on the dining room table,” wrote one unhappy Pie consumer. “It is composed entirely of root vegetables in which one feels turnip has far too honoured a place.”) Though endured with stiff upper lips during the 1940s, Woolton Pie promptly disappeared after the war. Today the only survivor of the Ministry of Foods’ austerity meals is carrot cake, which most agree is better with post-war cream-cheese frosting.

Turnips, a Precursor to the Industrial Revolution?

Turnips, however, have also had their day in the sun. During the 18th century—under the auspices of Charles, Viscount Townshend—the turnip was promoted as a key player in a four-field system of crop rotation in which wheat, turnips, barley, and clover were each in turn planted annually. The result was a spectacular boom in food production. Fields no longer had to lay fallow; clover provided a much-needed dose of nitrogen to the soil; and the resilient turnip—which could be stored over the winter—provided enough animal food so that farmers were no longer compelled to slaughter all their livestock in November, thus increasing the availability of milk and meat.

By championing such new advances in agriculture, Townshend—nicknamed “Turnip” Townshend from the inevitable and obsessive subject of his conversation—contributed to the cascade of events that led to the Industrial Revolution. Increased food production and more efficient farms supported an expanding population and eventually provided workers for the multiplying factories. The modern world, in other words, was built on turnips. (See “Driving the Next Industrial Revolution“)

It’s a pity we don’t appreciate them more.

In the 1990 movie Crazy People, advertising executive Emory Leeson (played by Dudley Moore) has a nervous breakdown, designs a series of painfully truthful advertising slogans and is promptly dispatched to a psychiatric hospital. His advertising campaign—published by mistake—then turns out to be a roaring success. The jaded public likes the no-frills honesty of Emory and his mental-patient colleagues, who come up with such plugs as: “Volvos: they’re boxy, but they’re good” and “Forget Paris. The French can be annoying. Come to Greece. We’re nicer.”

It’s an approach that lends itself to turnips.

“Turnips. They’re really not that bad.”

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.