Vermont Gets A State Vegetable: The Gilfeather Turnip, A Wardsboro Heirloom

May 23, 2016

On Tuesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin will sign into law a bill proclaiming the Gilfeather Turnip the Vermont state vegetable. The town of Wardsboro, the mysterious turnip's ancestral home, couldn't be more pleased.

The Gilfeather is a knobby lump of a root vegetable that acts more like a rutabaga than a turnip. But that’s no bother to people in Wardsboro, where local pride in the turnip fueled a successful campaign to have it named the state vegetable. Anita Rafael, a Gilfeather turnip enthusiast who’s been an active volunteer in the effort to get the turnip recognized, explains the turnip’s historical “roots” in Wardsboro.

What is a Gilfeather Turnip?

"It’s half-rutabaga, half-turnip hybrid that was developed by John Gilfeather, hence the name. The earliest reference we have in print to it is about 1902 here in Wardsboro. It's white instead of yellow and it doesn't have that little back-of-the-throat bite that normal turnips have — they're sweet and creamy."

Why they should be harvested after the first hard frost

"And not a little frost — not the kind that kills your petunias — but a good hard frost. Because what happens is, like most root vegetables, they are very high in water content. And Mother Nature figured this out really, really well: Mother Nature said, ‘Look, you're going to freeze to death unless you do something.’ So the turnip goes, ‘Oh my God, I better do something!’

"So that turnip turns the water into sugars — it forms all these phytochemicals and turns into glucose. But what happens is, sugary water has a lower freezing point than regular water, so that's what makes the turnip super sweet after the first frost. It tries to save its own life by turning itself into sugar."

On the response to Wardsboro's enthusiasm about a turnip

"Yeah, there's been some comments here and there on social media. But that's OK! We take it in good fun because we have a big festival where we totally get carried away with this. So we actually like the attention that it's getting in any context — we're good with that."

On the bill's long journey through the Legislature

"It did take a long time, but it was well worth it because this is a vegetable that's rooted in Vermont! It literally is a Vermont vegetable.

"Sen. David Zuckerman had proposed kale — remember the whole kale thing a couple years ago? ... But kale is everywhere, and nobody even knows where kale came from, like China maybe. But we know precisely where this turnip came from. The farm is still in existence. The house the guy lived in is still there. They still grow the same turnip in the same field. So it's totally Vermont."

On John Gilfeather's protection of his turnip trade secrets

"Well, it's a great story because John Gilfeather, grew these turnips on the farm that he had here on Gilfeather Road and he brought the turnips to market. But so that no one else could grow them, he cut the tops off the turnips and he cut the roots off. They tend to grow a lot of root hairs and he individually shaved literally thousands of turnips before he loaded up his wagon and brought them to market.

"He sold them as far south as Massachusetts, over the border into New York, certainly he must have wandered to markets over in New Hampshire as well. And he put notices in the newspaper that he's bringing his crops to market but you better pre-order them early because they are going to sell out. So clearly he had something in his lifetime with them but it only lasted as long as he did, because he was a little bit protective of how the turnip was grown and cultivated.

"But nonetheless, there's a there's a happy ending to this. Some people did have the seed and eventually by the 1970s, Bill Schmidt and his wife Mary Lou Schmidt managed to get some seeds trademarked and accepted as an heirloom vegetable."

On the difficulty of procuring Gilfeather Turnip seeds

"There are a few commercial growers that will provide seeds. It takes two years to get seeds out of these turnips — it's very labor intensive. First, you have to grow the turnip from seed. Then, you don't harvest the turnip, but you dig it up and you winter it over. Then the next year, you plant the actual turnip itself and then you let it flower and go to seed. And then you have to go through all the trouble of harvesting the seed, cleaning it, winnowing it, packaging it. It's a very fine seed, it's tiny. And so to get a handful of seeds out of a field of turnips is quite an endeavor. It's part of the slow foods movement. The very, very slow foods movement."

Recipe: Gilfeather Turnip Festival Soup

Ingredients:

  • ¼ lb. butter
  • 8 cups unsalted Chicken Stock
  • 3 lbs. Gilfeather Turnip, peeled & chopped
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg, ground
  • 4 large onions, chopped
  • Fresh spinach, washed and de-stemmed
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:
Melt butter in 5 quart kettle and sauté chopped onion and garlic until soft but not browned. Add stock and chopped turnips and cook until tender. Drain and reserve some of the liquid. Puree mixture in food processor until smooth. Put through a food mill or sieve and return to kettle. Add seasonings and half and half. Mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary. Add reserved cooking liquid if soup is too thick. Sauté spinach in a small amount of Olive Oil until just wilted. Use spinach as a garnish on top of the soup before serving or puree and use as a swirl on top of the soup. Or, use the turnip greens instead of spinach. For a Vegetarian Version, use vegetable stock.  (Recipe courtesy of Chef Greg Parks, formerly of the Four Columns Inn in Newfane.)

Recipe Fluffy Gilfeather Turnip Soufflé

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbls. Butter
  • ⅛ Tsp. Pepper
  • 1 Tbls. Onion, chopped
  • 1 Tbls. Sugar
  • 3 Cups Gilfeather Turnip, cooked and mashed
  • Pinch of Cayenne Pepper
  • 2 Egg Yolks, beaten
  • 1 Tsp. Salt
  • 2 Egg Whites, stiffly beaten

Instructions:
Preheat oven to 400°F. Melt butter in a large pan. Add onion and sauté until a delicate brown. Add turnips, salt, sugar, pepper, and cayenne pepper. Mix well. Add the beaten egg yolks. Fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites. Put in greased baking dish or soufflé dish. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until solid in middle.