Thunder stolen by a turnip; whatever next? My portal into reviewing Pen Vogler’s enthralling new social history of food, Stuffed (Atlantic, £22), was to be via the humble root vegetable. But trips to Florence and Paris delayed my words and, meanwhile, The Observer’s Rachel Cooke went down that same route (sic), name checking naturally the departed agriculture minister Thérèse Coffey, who responded to salad dearth in our supermarkets by advocating we all ‘cherish’ the turnip. Did she mean the cute purple and white version the French call ‘navets’, or our own more rustic swede or rutabaga, often confined to being over-wintering livestock fodder? Even though her advice might count as a plea for seasonality, as so often, ‘Nellie The Effluent’ muddied the waters. The UK’s biggest turnip grower happened to be in her Norfolk constituency and he was giving up on it because those same supermarkets wouldn’t give him an affordable return.
Appropriately, Stuffed, subtitled ‘A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain’, is a surprisingly political survey of feast and famine with a particular emphasis on the damage wrought on subsistence by 300 years of Enclosures forcing 6.8 million acres of communal land into private ownership. The book title is not just about a full stomach, it’s also about being shafted.
Its predecessor Scoff, with its examination of class within English eating and drinking was her ‘Nancy Mitford’ book; this is her ‘Jessica Mitford’, constantly drawing parallels with times of scarcity in the past with, say, today’s children going hungry. In the introduction she puts herself firmly in the camp of medic Chris van Tulleken in bemoaning the baleful effects of UPF (ultra-processed foods), toxic equivalents of the adulterated horrors of the Victorian era, detailed in chapters such as ‘Bread and Butter’ or ‘Mustard and Pickles’ in lurid detail.
It took an outsider to chronicle the industrialised food short-cuts that could wreck or even kill a consumer. In 1820 London-based German chemist Frederick Accum published A Treatise on the Adulteration of Food and Culinary Poisons, its cover warning “There is death in the pot”. But it was not until half a century later that the Sale of Food and Drugs Act finally legislated against universal excesses such as the addition of alum or aluminium salt to make a baker’s loaf heavier and bleached whiter. Pen writes: “It was not lethal but it could cause swollen gums and inflate the gum, leading to dyspepsia, diarrhoea and gastritis, all of which impeded the absorption of nutrients.” Alum grinders inhaling its dust became seriously ill; it is still around today.
If all this sounds a mite dour, don’t fret. Born out of impeccable historical research, Stuffed shares the same lightness of touch that made Scoff a best-seller. Particularly wry is her take on the link between that Dickensian twist, gruel, and a ‘healthy brunch mate’ of 2023. While porridge had 5oz of oatmeal per pint, gruel managed just 2oz. A similar ratio to our oat milk, which thankfully avoids the workhouse pollution of rat and mice droppings!
As with Scoff, the book is divided into chapters devoted to a particular foodstuff, 26 in all, ranging from carp to strawberries, from goose to pumpkins with a recipe tagged on the end of each, each account riffing across the centuries, driven by the weight of her research.
Which brings us back to where we came in. The turnip gets a chapter to itself, introduced as a surprising flagship for Renaissance wellness theory based upon ‘the humouds’… revered too for its aphrodisiac qualities. So not just the neglected foodstuff it has become across our shores. According to Stuffed, improved farming techniques on a grander scale slowly transformed the turnip into primarily animal feed for winter.
Let us salute Baldrick’s proud and upright turnip
Witness for the turnip’s defence, unearthed by the diligent Pen, is much-travelled Tudor cleric Andrew Boorde, A Compendyous Regyment or a Dyetary of Healthe (1423) puts the turnip on a pedestal for its medicinal properties, particularly in a sexual context. She writes: “His prescriptions closely follow a slightly earlier book by Sir Thomas Elyot, as they both agree that turnips boiled and eaten with flesh ‘augmentyth the seed of man’ and a small amount of raw turnip was good for the appetite.”
Hence the aptness of those running turnip jokes across the first two series of BBC’s Blackadder. In the launch episode the new King Richard gives a speech: “This day has been as ’twere a mighty stew in which the beef of victory was mix’d with the vile turnip of sweet Richard slain and the grisly dumpling of his killer fled. But we must eat the yellow wobbly parts two serves. In life, each man gets what he deserves!”
The apogee of the dick-shaped turnip gag comes in series two when the Edmund Blackadder’s servant prepares his ‘Turnip Surprise’. Edmund: “And the surprise is…?” Baldrick: “There’s nothing else in it except the turnip.” Edmund: So, in other words, the Turnip Surprise would be…a turnip.”
To much merriment the Turnip Surprise turns out to look like a “thingy”. Baldrick: “A great big thingy! It was terrific.” Edmund: “Size is no guarantee of quality, Baldrick. Most horses are very well endowed, but that does not necessarily make them sensitive lovers. I trust you have removed this hilarious item?” Baldrick: “I found it particularly ironic, my lord, because I’ve got a thingy that’s shaped like a turnip!” Miriam Margolyes as Edmund’s Puritan aunt (whose inheritance he seeks) demands she must have her turnip not mashed but as “God intended”. It arrives and further priapic hilarity ensues.
I have turnips. What do I cook with them?
The batch of un-suggestively shaped turnips I brought back from the market demands I prepare something that does them humble justice. Maybe use the beef stew with turnips recipe from 17th century diarist and gardener John Evelyn that’s appended to Pen’s turnip chapter. My gut instinct is to go for the great Richard Corrigan’s take on the French classic Navarin that pairs lamb shoulder with anchovies, but it requires tiny purple spring turnips. Mine are larger but still intense, so I stew them in butter and thyme with chopped chestnuts and black garlic, add rich beef stock, simmer for an hour, liquidise and serve as a rich veloute. A proper winter warmer.