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True Cape Roots

Eastham turnips—those savory, violet-tinged staples of the holiday dinner table—have origins deeper than the soil.

Eastham turnips—those savory, violet-tinged staples of the holiday dinner table—have origins deeper than the soil

Photo by Dan Cutrona

Abbott Schafer Knowles started farming turnips just about as soon as he could walk. He was born in one of the old farmhouses on Locust Road in Eastham in 1905, and he came from a long line of Knowles men—farmers, mostly, and a few nefarious characters dabbling in moonshine. The Knowles farmed turnips. So did the Nickersons and the Kings and the Bracketts. Especially the Bracketts.

Until suddenly, they didn’t.

Turnip farming was, for a long time, what the men of Eastham did. Every family had a field, a line of turnips, and their own saved seed that they planted each summer after the Fourth of July, as soon as the last of the asparagus harvest was in. As a Cape Cod food writer and an NPR radio show host on culinary topics, I learned about the tradition from the farmers who are still growing turnips—growers met at local farmers markets, like Bob Wells and Abbott Knowles’ granddaughter, Kristin.

The turnips are pale skinned, white fleshed, purple topped, and  sweet tasting—some say they’re more rutabaga than turnip. You can hear Art Nickerson (1915–2008) talk about these famous turnips on a series of audio interviews recorded in 1982, preserved on cassette at the Eastham Library. “We were brought up raising turnips,” Art said. He was sitting at the time with Joe King, another turnip farmer from Eastham. “Both our fathers raised them, and in those days the boy, when he was old enough to hold a hoe in his hand, went out and hoed and tinned turnips. Isn’t that right Joe?” “That’s right,” Joe said.

In the 1920s, prices for turnips started dropping. You can hear Cape Codder Isabelle Brackett (1904–1997) on those tapes, too.

Her family owned the general store, the store that sold fertilizer and all the other farm goods. “People could not pay their bills,” Isabelle said. There was a drought, and soon it was the Depression. “They couldn’t afford to cultivate their turnips. The turnip crop did not produce the income that people were depending on,” Isabelle explained. “They’d spent the money for fertilizer and worked and cultivated and the turnip crop was a failure. That was really the beginning of the time when people began to forget turnip farming.”

Then there’s  the memories of Shirley Nickerson (1921–2010), Art’s sister. “The last year my father planted turnips, the truck used to come around and take them to a market in Boston and then they would pay you what the going price was. For the last load he sent, he got a bill back for the freight,” Shirley recalls.

That, for most Cape Cod farmers, was the end.

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