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July 22, 2019 |

Seven Top Turnips: by Cameron Lee

Turnips are a very popular vegetable for both its bulbous root and its spicy, nutritious greens.  Although all turnip greens are edible, there are specific varieties that have been bred for their prolific production of delicious turnip greens.  One variety in particular that we sell at Gateway Greening is the Seven Top Turnip. The Seven Top Turnip is part of an ancient lineage of turnips. Turnips were domesticated in two separate places with the European varieties developed around the Mediterranean region.  In fact, the Early Greeks cultivated several types as early as 300 BCE. The turnip was also grown in Asia for the past 4,000 years, theorized to have originated from Central Asia, west of the Himalayan mountain range. Modern-day turnips grew in what is now France at least as early as 100 A.D. 


Pictured below are turnip greens

The Seven Top Turnip variety was first noted in Virginia, later becoming a regular garden fixture throughout the Eastern Atlantic region and the South during the nineteenth century. The greens of the Seven Top would gain further popularity in the twentieth century as seed companies began distributing the plant around the country.  It eventually developed a strong following in Kentucky, southern Ohio, and right here in Missouri. However, despite its popularity in home gardens, it wasn’t grown on an industrial scale since it doesn’t produce the bulbous root that many like to eat. For those who love turnip greens though, the Seven Top is the standard and highly regarded in the South. Enjoyed by all, the greens are commonly featured in wilted salads, with hot bacon grease and salt poured on top. The flavor of the greens is not as sharp as mustard and more peppery than lettuce, cress, or pepper grass.

The Seven Top is part of the Brassica genus and is in the same family as mustard greens and cabbage.  Almost all parts of the plants in the Brassica genus are developed for food, including the root, stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds which can be used in various culinary recipes. Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder stated, “it (turnips) should be spoken of immediately after corn, or the bean, at all events; for next to these two productions, there is no plant that is of more extensive use.” Not all turnips are the same and many vary in shape, size, and color – some can potentially a weight of fifty pounds.  They can be round, flat, or even cylindrical; the colors can be yellow or white, with or without green, red, or purple near the top. They typically are planted in the fall and winter seasons, and the foliage of the Seven Top is harvested around forty-five days after planting. 


Pictured below, Buist’s prize medal turnip seeds in the late 19th century

Mentioned by Roman agriculturalists Cato and Columella, the crop may have been introduced to England by Roman colonizers and later naturalized following the Roman evacuation of the country. However, the turnip would not gain popularity until the seventeenth and eighteenth century. John Gerard, an English botanist, would note that the cultivation of turnips as a food source centered around the village of Hackney, located on the outskirts of London. This suggests that the inclusion of the turnip into the English diet was primarily due to Dutch expatriates living in the country. In those times growing turnips required some skill, mainly to avoid the turnip fly’s devastating ability to destroy the seedling sprouts of the turnips. The farmer’s solution was to germinate their seeds in water for a day, with the more adventurous farmers using warm water and then proceeding to douse the seeds in lamp oil or lime to impart a flavor that is offensive to the fly.  Although the turnip was not fully adopted into the English diet during the nineteenth century, the United States saw a particular interest in the plant with people from every region and class enjoying it. The first turnips were brought to modern-day Canada by the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier in 1541. It would also be planted in Virginia by colonists in 1609 and later Massachusetts in the 1620s. The cultivation of the turnip would not go unnoticed by the American Indians and they would adopt the turnip for food.  

Due to the greens long growing season and high nutritional content, greens became a staple food across the South.  Influenced by the African Diaspora, southern cooking is a mix of European, African, and Native American culinary practices and traditions. Before the nineteenth century, the majority of Africans entered the United States as enslaved people, with their time spent in Africa mostly working in agriculture-related pursuits and domestic service to one another. Ironically, their enslavement was well placed to influence their masters. This influence not only extended to the dishes they ate and served but also the crops they grew, methods of agriculture, various culinary techniques, and arguably, even ideas of hospitality. Starting on the African continent, a soupy stew eaten over a starch was most certainly in effect before European contact, varying from region to region. 


Pictured above are wilted turnip greens, a traditional dish popular in the South in the U.S.

North Africa had millet and hard wheat; the west was cultivating yams and rice; the horn of Africa growing teff and eleusine. The culinary techniques primarily revolved around the three rock stove: boiling their food in water, toasting near the fire, roasting in the fire, steaming by wrapping the foodstuff in leaves, baking in the ashes, and even frying them in deep oil. These techniques would be carried over the Atlantic and would later form the foundation of the cooking in which African Americans would excel at and later add to the culinary traditions of the South. Before the advent of grocery stores and modern shipping, a person’s diet mainly depended on where they lived, especially for the enslaved living in the economically disadvantaged South. Meat such as beef and pork were expensive, leading many to rely on vegetables for nutrition.  

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  7. HARRIS, JESSICA B. “African American Foodways.” In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 7: Foodways, edited by EDGE JOHN T., by WILSON CHARLES REAGAN, 15-18. University of North Carolina Press, 2007. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469616520_edge.6.