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When root vegetables were cultivated as much for livestock feed as human food, the parsnip was horse candy. Sweet, distinctive tasting, and nutritious, it had been standard garden fare in Europe since antiquity. When consumed by cows, as in the English channel islands, they gave richer milk in greater quantity than any other foot and butter noted for its piquant sweetness. When farmers fattened pigs or beeves for slaughter, they often fed the creatures on barrows of parsnips. For the table, parsnips evolved a variety of uses over the centuries. It was roasted, fried, stewed, pureed, mashed, and fermented into beer and wine. In the Catholic countries of southern Europe, the vegetable’s original home, it traditionally paired with salt fish. In England it gave rise to a lustrous winter soup. Three botanical varieties were generally known to early Americans: Pastinaca lucida—the shiny leafed parsnip—Pastinaca-sativa—the common parsnip—and the Pastinanca opoponax—the rough parsnip. The last had a root widely thought poisonous, but the sap had been rendered into a medicinal gum by medieval apothecaries. The Irish used the seeds of the common parsnip as a curative for stomach disorders. During the colonial period settlers made no differentiation of the root into garden varieties. When experimental agriculture and gastronomy both took off in the 1820s, horticulturists recognized three culinary types: the common, the Guernsey, and the hollow-crowned.[1] These parsnip varieties produced roots of great length—delving into the soil as much as a yard—and boasted greater sweetness than 21st century market parsnips, roots that average under a foot in length. The current style of parsnip—modeled on the modestly sweet and compact “Tender and True” variety introduced early in the 20th century—lacks the robust flavor of the earlier sorts. But it has eliminated the primary fault of the earlier varieties, the woody core that made portions of the root touch chewing.

Parsnips require rich soil that has been trenched at least 20 inches in depth. Clods must be broken up and stones removed, or else the roots with grow crooked. In the south, seed is broadcast or planted in shallow drills on the first warmish day in March. The seeds take three weeks to germinate. During the third week in April, thing the seedlings until one has plants a minimum of a foot apart. The plot requires periodic weeding until the plants come to full leaf, after which the plot requires tending only to check insect problems. Harvest takes place in October or November, when the leaves yellow on the stalk. Hardier than carrots, parsnips can stand up to extremes of weather. The farmers in the 19th century believed the roots tasted better if left in the ground until after the first substantial frost.[2]

From the earliest period of European colonization of North America the parsnip proved an essential vegetable. Indeed, “New England’s Annoyances,” (1643) America’s first folk song, complains that “Instead of pottage and puddings, custards and pies,/ Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies.”[3] In the absence of barley and beer, the poet observes “we can make liquor to sweeten our lips/ Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut tree chips.” This last was no far-fetched claim, for parsnip beer and parsnip wine (including a sparkling versions) graced the table of American homesteads well into the nineteenth century. The great English historians of vegetables, Phillips, wrote early in the 19th century, “Wind made from these roots, approaches nearer to the Malmsey of Medeira and the Canaries than any other wine.” This is when Madeiras enjoyed the highest esteem among American connoisseurs of any wine.

New Englanders of Americans had the deepest involvement with the parsnip. They cherished one advantage of the root particularly: its ability to winter over in the ground. Rev. Jeremy Belknap observed in 1791, “People in the most northerly parts of New-England, where winter reigns with greatest severity, and the ground is often frozen to the depth of two or three feet, for four months. Leave their parsnips in the ground till it thaws in the spring, and think th em much better preserved than in cellars.”[4] Lucy Emerson, compiler of New England Cookery (1808), voiced one caveat about parsnips wintered in the soil. After excavation in April, “they will not last long after and commonly more sticky and hard in the centre.” [5]

Jeremy Belknap discovered a second advantage of the parsnip for his neighbors. If the root is dried, it can keep without degradation of taste or nutrition for long periods of time, and can easily be reconstituted when “soaked in warm water, for about and hour,” tasting as sweet when cooked “as if it had been fresh drawn from the ground.” Given the region’s strong maritime involvement, the value of dried parsnip as a food on long sea voyages was readily apparent.

Because of the pronounced, minty-nutty flavor of the parsnip, it did not need elaborate preparation in cookery for it to satisfy at the table. Most parsnip dishes begin with boiling, for its best counteracted the greatest culinary liability of the older longer vegetable, its penchant for producing roots with a touch core. The National Cook Boork, published in Philadelphia shortly before the Civil War, records four ancient and standard methods of preparation.

1. “Parsnip,” Southern Agriculturist, Horticulturist, and Register of Rural Affairs (September 1841), p. 489.
2. Massachusetts Spy (February 3, 1774). Leo Lemay wrote a book about the text, New England’s Annoyances, America’s First Folk Song (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1985).
3. Rev. J. Belknap, “Advantages of preserving Parsnips by Drying,” The Universal Asylum and Columbian Magazine (July 1791), p. 40.
4. Lucy Emerson, The New-England Cookery, or the Art of Dressing All Kinds of Flesh, Fish, and Vegetables (Montpelier: Joah Parks, 1808), p. 11.
5. Lucy Emerson, The New-England Cookery, or the Art of Dressing All Kinds of Flesh, Fish, and Vegetables (Montpelier: Joah Parks, 1808), p. 11.

Long Smooth, or Hollow Crown    History

the best variety, either for stock or table.

Student    History

a new variety (as of 1871), not so long as the Hollow Crown, generally about 15 inches, tapering rapidly at the bottom.

Long White Dutch, or Sugar    History

roots very long, white, smooth, tender, sugary, and most excellently flavored. Very hardy, and will keep through winter without protection.

Carter’s New Maltese    History

claiming to be a marked improvement over all old sorts; the base of the leaf stems present the appearance of a Maltese Cross.

Tender & True    History

the mild flavored, short rooted version that introduced the 20th-century preferred form.

Parsnip Wine (1825)    History

To every 4 lbs of Parsnips, cleaned and quartered, put one gallon of water; boil them till they are quite tender; drain them through a sieve, but do not bruise them, as no remedy would clear the wine afterwards. Pour the liquor into a tub, and to each gallon add 3 lbs. of loaf sugar and half an ounce of crude tartar. When cooled to the tempereature of 75 degrees, put in a little new yeast; let it stand four days in a warm rootm, then tun it.—The mixture should, if possible, be fermented in a temperature of 60 degrees. September and March and the best seasons for making the wine. When the fermentation has subsided, bung down the cask, and let the wine stand at least twelve months before bottling. [6]

6. “Parsnip Wine,” The American Farmer 7, 9 (May 20, 1825), p. 68. Reprinted from the English Farmer’s Journal. The correspondent is from Newport, Isle of Wight.

Boiled Parsnips    History

[7][8] Scrape and wash your parsnips and put them on with just enough water to boil them and no more; when they are done they should be nearly dry. Then dish them and pour over melted butter and a little salt, or some drawn butter.

8.A Lady of Philadelphia, The National Cook Book (Philadelphia: Hayes & Zell, 1856), p.. 88-89.

Grilled Parsnips    History

Boil them as directed above, and when done cut them in half, grease the bars of your gridiron, put them on it over some lively coals and brown them.

Mashed Parsnips    History

Boil them as directed above, when done mash them season with pepper and salt, and a small piece of butter.

Fried Parsnips (1879)    History

Peel and parboild the parsnips. Slice lengthwise, and fry with fat pork, sprinking over them salt, pepper, and sugar. Grate bread crumbs over it and serve. Mrs. S. T. [9]

9. Marion Cabell Tyree, Housekeeping in Old Virginia (Louisvelle: John P. Morton, 1879), pp. 249-250.

Parsnip Fritters (1860)    History

Boil four or five parsnips; when tender, take off the skin and mash them fine, add to them a teaspoon full of what flour and a beaten egg; put a tablespoon full of lard or beef drippings in a frying pan over the fire, add to it a saltspoon full of salt; when boiling hot, but in the parsnips, make it in small cakes with a spoon; when one side is a delicate brown, turn the other; when both are done, take them on a dish, put a very little of the fat in which they were fried over, and serve hot. These resemble very nearly the taste of salsify or oyster plant, and will generally be preferred. [10]

10. Elizabeth M. Hall, American Practical Cookery (New York: Saxton & Barker, 1860), p. 139.