ND 2012

True Cape Roots

Cape Cod Life  /  November/December 2012 / , ,

Writer: Cape Cod Life Publications / Photographer: Dan Cutrona 

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.

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

Photo by Dan Cutrona

The thing about turnips is they’re biennial. These stubborn vegetables take two years to complete a lifecycle, so to get seed you have to plant  twice—once the first spring, then again after the roots have overwintered.

Turnips are a commitment. You dig a pit below the freeze line, at least three feet, and throw the turnips in. You cover them with seaweed and put on top of that a light covering of sand. Then when spring comes you have to dig the turnips up, carefully, and then plant the best ones back in the fields and wait for stalks to appear. Eventually, the pods come—many, many pods off of each plant, filled with seeds, round and tiny, like pinheads. “If you’re doing it the correct way, you’re collecting seed for the next season,” says Janice Nickerson, Art’s daughter, who lives in Eastham and is still raising turnips.

The pods are ready when brown, the seeds inside dry and dark. The birds love seed pods, so that’s a fight, and you have put up netting to protect the plants. “Then you thresh and just take the pods and rub them with your hands, and you have the little seeds,” Janice says, “and then you have to winnow—that’s the tough part.”

Winnow is an old word, and it used to be a common one. When you winnow, you make sure to pick out all the pieces of pod, anything that might get stuck in the planter. That, of course, is before the planting. Then you have to plow, rototill, fertilize, and then start all over again.

It’s no wonder that by 1982, when Art Nickerson was recorded, he said as far as he knew, he was the only one who still had any seeds. “We’re getting along in years and everybody that raised turnips is dead and gone, including Mr. [Raymond] Brackett [b. 1893], who was just buried this week, the oldest, largest farmer in Eastham,” Art said.

Today, you can trace every turnip in Eastham—and Truro, Wellfleet, and Orleans—back to Raymond Brackett’s seed. His barn was where Seaman’s Bank is today, his house up on that knoll above the parking lot, and his fields under Main Street Mercantile across the street. Art Nickerson helped him out as a boy, and just before Raymond died he gave Art his last seed.

Art had taken a break from turnip farming—after his father got the freight bill, they quit for a stretch—but he came back to it in 1977, a few years before Raymond passed on his last seed. Art had retired from his auto body shop, and he didn’t want to see the tradition go when Raymond passed away. He went back out to the fields and started raising turnips to sell locally and eat at Thanksgiving, and gathered seeds to save.

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

Photo by Dan Cutrona

In the years that followed, the group of farmers harvesting Eastham turnips began to grow. Art had Raymond’s seed, and he gave some to “Jolly” Roger Taggert at the barbershop next door to his service station on Oak Road. Roger gave some to Bob Wells, who grows Eastham Turnips today at his farm on Redberry Lane. He passed some on to Peter Staaterman at Longnook Meadows Farm in Truro.

Bob also got seeds from Judy Scanlon in Orleans. Judy, in turn, got her seed from David Raphaelson. “He got his seed from Nickerson, but not voluntarily,” she says. “He bought some of Art’s turnips and stored them for the winter and put them out in the spring.”

More than a few growers wish Nickerson wasn’t so proprietary with the seeds. But Audrey Bohannon, another of Art’s daughters, says her father just never had enough seed to share. He was always saving it, just in case, and it was such hard work to produce that he didn’t give much away.

“I’m not being greedy,” Art said on the 1982 tape. “It’s a fact that I can only raise so much, and there’s a lot of work in raising seeds. If I give it to one, I’d have to give it to everybody, and then I wouldn’t have any myself to produce.”

Judy sees things differently. She thinks the best way to increase supply is to share the seed. “I want the seed out there so people can grow this turnip,” she says. She sells seed and seedlings at her farmstand on Monument Road in Orleans, and seed from stock she donated years ago is now for sale online through the Vermont Bean Company. Roger says you can also find similar seed through Johnny’s Selected Seeds online and Harris Seed Company.

Whether these seeds actually produce Eastham turnips is up for debate. Art Nickerson always said you can’t grow an Eastham turnip in Wellfleet or Orleans. “It’s the sand, the soil, that gives us the taste here. That’s what I’ve always been told,” Roger says. “These turnips we raise in Eastham have a different taste than anywhere else.”

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

Photo by Dan Cutrona

He says that he did a test with the Harris seed. “We got a small amount of seed we bought from there. I bought a quarter of a pound of seed, a dollar and seventy-five cents, and I couldn’t possibly raise it for that money,” Roger says. “But Harris Seed Company in New York, it’s called Macomber Turnip seed. We tried a few rows of it and then we gave a lot of turnips away and asked people their opinion, people that are used to eating turnips and like our turnips. And they all said the same thing: it’s stronger, it’s bitterer. Most of them had a green top, where ours have a purple top. I know there are a few growers around in Wellfleet and Orleans that raise a few turnips, that use that seed, and they claim it’s the same thing. But it’s not.”

At one point in those old historical society tapes, the interviewer asks Art, “What’s going to happen after you people are gone? Are you going to will your seeds or your knowledge to anybody?”

Art responds, “I told my wife that she can do what she damn pleases with them after I’m gone. Right now, I’m in control of them.”

As it turned out, Marcia, Art’s wife, went first. But Art’s kids are carrying the tradition on. They still have seed, though less every year. “This year we’re getting low on seed so we have a smaller—I’d even call it a patch instead of a field—a smaller crop. We’re going to eat a few for Thanksgiving, but really this year we’re just growing for seed, trying to replenish our seed,” Audrey says today.

These days, it’s hard to get your hands on seed that you can be sure comes from the original Brackett/Nickerson strain. Abbott Knowles’ granddaughter, Kristin Knowles, was so determined to grow her grandfather’s beloved turnips that she kept buying Eastham turnips at the local markets until she found a few with tiny green leaves. She put them in a greenhouse, and by the end of last summer she had her own seed.

She shared some with me, and so did Roger. He poured it out for me from a big bag, told me it’s a few years old, and he’s not sure about the germination rate. He sealed it in an envelope and gave me careful instructions:

“Don’t plant it this year, it’s too late. Wait until just after July fourth next year. You harvest in November, just before Thanksgiving. Then you need to pick a mother.” The mother is the turnip to save, the best one, the one that will grow the new seed next year. “How do you pick the mother?” I ask.

“I can’t say,” Roger says. “That’s the secret.”

Elspeth Hay is a freelance writer who lives in Wellfleet. She also produces “The Local Food Report,” a program on WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR station. 

Cape Cod Life Publications