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In Europe it bore the common name ‘goat’s beard,’ honoring its shaggy violet blossom that opened with first light and closed at noon. The beard-blossom was “Flora’s clock” that alerted layabeds “Arise! The noon is come.” Salsify was an upper-crust name, a Norman importation from France, from salsafis. The Latin pedigree of the term has been debated, offering competing stories that it originally meant ‘rock-rubber’ or else ‘salt maker.’ Both proposed etymologies referenced the root, rather than the blossom. In America, the slender, pale root became, curiously, a monument to the people’s insatiable desire for oysters, earning the vegetable the nickname, oyster-plant. Even boiled, mashed, rolled in cracker crumbs and deep fried like fried oysters, Salsify does not possess the mouth feel, salinity, or unctuousness of a bivalve. So it suffers the fate of being a perpetual disappointment, a failed wish for those who take it up thinking it to be, somehow, the vegetable kingdoms phantom double for a blue point. (Repeatedly in cook books of the 19th century one finds suggestions on how to make salsify taste “more like an oyster,” such as “having a little cod-fish stirred among it” while stewing.) Let us exorcise the phantom now. Only a 19th-century Midwesterner, haunted by elusive memory and residing far from the railroad depots where barrels of eastern oysters were dispatched, could possibly delude themselves into detecting the briny succulence of an oyster on his tongue when savoring salsify. The root has its own virtues, whether boiled, stewed, fried, or shaved into a salad. It has a clean, slightly saline toothsomeness, free of the mintyness and occasional fibrousness of a parsnip, the rough sugar of a carrot, or the mealy blandness of a potato. It is wholesome, delicately nutty, and visually appealing when peeled, white and firm. Black salsify, scorzonera, was not a member of the oyster plant genus despite surface similarities in structure. It enjoyed substantially less favor in kitchen gardens that the white. Spanish salsify, a closer relative, is more common as a wild crop than a cultivated root. Both resemble white salsify in taste, though the Spanish is more fibrous and the black, longer in dimension.

Salsify, Tragopogon porrifolius was a biennial plant, cultivated as a green and a root vegetable. In early spring, the young tops, the leaves of which resemble leeks, were trimmed off, tied in bunches, and boiled until fork tender. Their taste resembles that of fiddleheads or asparagus. They were consumed with salt and melted butter. The quality of the greens improve during the second year of cultivation.

The tapering root, somewhat thinner than a parsnip and long as a human foot, required careful soil preparation, with over a foot of trenching and planting in well-manured topsoil. Salsify is grown from seed and treated by most gardeners as an annual. “The ground should be prepared in the fall, and left in ridges during the winter season. As soon as the weather becomes settled in the spring, the ground be neatly leveled off, and the seed sown in drills from twelve to eighteen inches apart, and covered to the depth of half an inch. When the young plants are about two or three inches in height they should be well thinned out, leaving them standing about six inches apart.” The rows should be 20 inches apart at a minimum. Harvest usually begins in late October and continues through winter. Because of its propensity to break off in the soil, care must be taken in digging out the roots; a long, slender trowel works best as an extracting tool. Those plants left alone to seed will grow three feet in height and be harvested for seed when they turn brown. An ounce of seed will produce a bed of plants suitable to feed a family. Because it was available during the winter dearth of vegetables, it was particularly valued by persons with a taste for diversity at the table. “It forms an admirable garnish for boiled fowls or turkies.” It lent texture and finesse to stuffings. And it generated a host of side dishes. In the following recipes portion your serving on the principle of 2 salsify roots per diner.

In English cookery white salsify, which had been bred into its modern thick rooted form in 1500s Italy, came from the continent in the 17th century. It supplanted native meadow salsify (Tragopogon pratensis) in kitchen gardens. Meadow salsify (Yellow goatsbeard or Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon) had scrawnier, more fibrous roots. The mealier, toothsome Tragopogon porrifolius lent itself to boiling and mashing. Indeed, white salsify’s propensity to dissolve into mush when overboiled has prompted 21st century cooks to steam rather than boil the root. In traditional European cookery salsify’s whiteness became a point of culinary elaboration. Care was taken to prevent the peeled roots from discoloring by soaking them immediately in vinegar water. Dishes often married the cooked roots with milk or cream.

In the United States the most widely planted variety of Salsify is the “Mammoth Sandwich Island,” distinctive for its hairy rootlets and its mellow taste. Developed in the United States in the 1860s, it combined features of the earlier “Mammoth,” “Long White,” “Sandwich Island” varieties. It won immediate broad favor and has dominated the market for over a century and a half. Old common varieties no longer in cultivation include the “Blue-flowered French,” “Golden,” “Salzer’s Early,” and “Thorburn’s Thick-Rooted” Salsify. Of the modern improved version of the French White Salsify, the Fiore Bleau, a meatier, bolder tasting salsify from Europe, has smoother, fatter roots. A less earthy tasting European variety, the Blanco Amélioré, is usually available from seed brokers. Black salsify can be purchased from a number of seed companies, with “Hoffman’s Schwarze” Scorzonera the choicest available. In general Scorzonera has longer roots than the true salsify, the longest currently available being the Scorzonera Geante Noire de Russie, which enjoys a following among Old World gardeners.

1. Mary Roberts, Flowers of the Matin and Even Song (London: Grant and Griffith, 1845), p. 56.

Salsify Salad (1885)    History

Wash, peel, and boil eight salsify roots. “Drain them, and when they are cold slice them into small stems about two inches long. Put them in a salad bowl, season with salt, pepper, sweet oil and vinegar, and add a few finely-sliced gherkins. Mix them all well together, dress them nicely, and sprinkle a little finely chopped parsley over the salad.”

Fried Salsify (1828)    History

“Wash the roots and cut them transversely into thin pieces—boil them in a little water, or milk and water—when boiled soft, mash them, and thicken the whole with flour to some degree of stiffness—then fry them in the fat of salt pork or butter. They are luxury.”

Mrs. Caroline N. S. Herbemont’s Fried Salsify (1830)    History

“1st, Boil the Salsify, scrape them, cut them in half, length-wise, and dip them in a rich batter, and fry them in lard . . . . In making the batter, put in a large tea spoonful of ground ginger.”

Salsify Oyster Fritters (1863)    History

“As the oyster is a very celebrated fish, and many in the interior rarely obtain it, all may cultivate this vegetable, which really makes a near approach to it in taste, when cooked in the following manner: Previous to boiling the roots let them be slightly scraped, and then laid in water for about an hour; then boil them till quite tender. Let them be taken out and laid to drain for a short time, during which a thick batter should be made with the white of eggs beaten up with a little flour. Grate the roots down tolerably fine; press them into small flattened balls; dip these in the batter, and roll them into grated crackers on crumbs of bread; then fry them in a pan till they are of a deep brown color, when they are ready for the table, and will form a very agreeable and even delicious dish.”

Stewed Salsify (1874)    History

“Wash the roots and scrape their skins, throwing them as you do so into cold water, for exposure to the air causes them to immediately turn dark. Then cut transversely into little bits, throw into fresh water, add a little salt, and stew in a covered vessel until tender. Now pour off the water, add a small lump of butter, a little pepper, and a gill of sweet cream.”

Stewed Salsify Virginia Style (1879)    History

Scrape and throw into water at once to prevent from turning dark. Boil till tender in a closely covered vessel. Drain off the water and cut the salsify in pieces half an inch long. Throw in a saucepan with 1 teacup vinegar 1 teacup water 1 tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon butter salt and pepper to taste Just before serving add the yolk of an egg beaten up and mixed with a little water. The seasoning above is give for one quart salsify.

Scalloped Oyster Plant (1874)    History

Boil the oyster plant under perfectly tender, then take out of the water and rub through a colander; add butter, pepper, salt and milk, and mix well. Put in a baking dish and cover the top with bread crumbs, with here and there small pieces of butter. Set in the oven and bake a delicate brown. Celery salt may be used with this for flavor, not using quite the quantity of common salt.

Fried Salsify    History

Stew the salsify as usual till very tender; then with the back of a spoon or small mallet mash it very fine. Beat up and egg, add a tea-cupful of milk, a little flour, butter, and seasoning of pepper and salt. Make into little cakes, and fry a light brown in boiling lard.”

Salsify Soup (1874)    History

“Scrape the salsify nicely. Boil with white fowl until quite done. Mash through a colander, add a quart of new milk, a spoonful of butter, two or three eggs, and pepper and salt to your taste.”

Cream of Salsify Soup (1906)    History

Scrub six salsify roots thoroughly, cut off tops and let stand in cold water until ready to use; then cook in boiling salted water until tender; peel at once and pass the root through a puree sieve. Put the pulp at once, with a pared onion gashed a little and a spring or two of parsley, in a double boiler with a pint of milk; let it stand over the fire until needed to keep warm. Melt half a cup of butter, cook in it one-third of a cup of flour with a little pepper and one teaspoonful of salt. When the butter and flour bubbles add one quart of milk; stir until it thickens and boils; then add the salsify and milk. When this boils pass through a fine sieve, reheat and add the yolks of two eggs beaten and mixed with a cup of cream. Finish with the whites beaten stiff and dropped by the spoonful over the hot soup after it is in the tureen. This is a very delightful soup.

Baked Salsify (1874)    History

Without scraping, boil until the skin comes off easily. Slice thin. Put into a china baking dish a layer of salsify, a layer of crumbs of bread, a little salt, pepper, and a covering ob butter as thin as you can cut it. Repeat until full, with crumbs of bread for the top. Pour in then as much milk as the dish will hold, and bake brown. It may be done in half an hour.”