Root for the home team: Vt. celebrates homegrown turnip
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | October 23,2012
Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photo
The trademarked Gilfeather turnip, first grown a century ago by Wardsboro farmer John Gilfeather, will be celebrated in his hometown this Saturday at the 10th annual Gilfeather Turnip Festival.
WARDSBORO — How do you put a town on the map when it has few roads or landmarks? This southeastern Vermont outpost of 900 is trading fall’s usual cornucopia of apples and pumpkins for a different tradition: a Gilfeather Turnip Festival.
“An entire family-oriented day dedicated to one of Vermont’s tastiest heirloom vegetables,” publicity for this weekend’s 10th annual event promises. “Join the whole town as we celebrate our delicious roots.”
When local farmer John Gilfeather first grew the uncommonly tender, sweet turnip a century ago — the hybrid is actually a rutabaga, but that’s another story — he didn’t foresee what would sprout: a townwide celebration of what Slow Food USA deems “one of the state’s unique contributions to cold weather agriculture.”
Wander down to the Main Street Town Hall on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and you’ll hear Wardsboro musician Jimmy Knapp sing his “Gilfeather Turnip Song” (“Back in eighteen-hundred and whatever, man came to the town by the name of Gilfeather”) that also can be heard in local journalist Theresa Maggio’s 23-minute YouTube documentary “The Gilfeather Turnip: Rooted in Wardsboro.”
Friends of the Wardsboro Library will sell $8 Gilfeather mugs, $10 Gilfeather tote bags, $12 Gilfeather baseball caps, $15 Gilfeather T-shirts, $15 Gilfeather Turnip Volume 2 Cookbooks (“70 pages of recipes, with many new recipes not formerly in Volume 1”) and $20 Gilfeather ornaments (“The only turnip ornament in Vermont”).
Local cooks will serve up the vegetable’s sweet white flesh and mild spineless greens, be it in turnip soup or Fluffy Gilfeather Turnip Souffle, as a prelude to the big finish: the Gilfeather Turnip Contest judged by Vermont storyteller Willem Lange. (“Did you grow a really big one? A really ugly one? A very special one? Enter the best of your crop.”)
Never turn up a Gilfeather turnip? According to local lore, its namesake farmer (“a lanky secretive bachelor”) tried to prevent others from propagating the vegetable by cutting off its tops and bottoms before selling the middles each fall. Gilfeather died in 1944, but his legacy lives on through a now trademarked turnip variety, sold in seed and softball-sized fruition at Dutton farm stands in Brattleboro, Manchester and Newfane.
“The Gilfeather is an egg-shaped, rough-skinned root, but unlike its cousins, it has a mild taste that becomes sweet after the first frost,” Slow Food USA says. “While the hardy Gilfeather turnip does well in nearly any climate, this touch of frost contributes to its unusual taste and texture.”
Adds New York Magazine: “The heirloom root (which is actually a rutabaga, Gilfeather’s nomenclature notwithstanding) has a sweet flavor with a mild radishlike bite, and it’s not too much to say it’s the best-tasting rutabaga around.”
As well as the most mysterious.
“Gilfeather never offered a biography of his creation but, of course, he was a Vermonter and thus taciturn by nature,” the blog vegetablesofinterest.typepad.com notes. “It does make one think ‘What’s it all coming to?’ when someone names a rutabaga after himself and calls it a turnip.”
More information about the festival can be found at www.friendsofwardsborolibrary.org.