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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

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.

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