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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

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. 

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