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What is the secret of parsnips?

Whenever I go to a big supermarket that carries fresh food, I always find these long, wrinkled, ugly, rooty-looking things called parsnips on display. Someone must like them or they wouldn’t be there, but I can’t find anyone who admits to eating them, or anyone who knows what the attraction might be. It certainly isn’t phallic, as carrots sometimes get portrayed. What is the allure of parsnips?

We grew parsnips once. They were slow to germinate so weeds got a head start on them. As for taste, I am not saying they weren’t edible if cooked with enough butter, but that is kind of true of cardboard too. Parsnips are “best” in early spring after having spent the entire winter in cold or even frozen soil. The cold enhances their taste which tells me that in the fall they must taste terrible. Nowadays, marketers sometimes refrigerate fall-harvested parsnips before selling them.

Parsnips have been cultivated and cherished at least back as far as ancient Roman times. The most obvious reason for their popularity is that they are available to eat before any new growth arrives in spring, a real advantage before modern storage methods came along. But there are other roots in the ground that also survive winter. Why parsnips? Help me out here.

What little solid history I can find about the parsnip only increases the mystery. In Gardening For Profit, an interesting old book by Peter Henderson, first published in 1867, the author goes to great length pointing out that parsnips are not a profitable crop for market gardeners to grow. But then in an about face, he tells about a year when for some reason a shortage of parsnips occurred in early spring when they were most in demand. The price rose so high that Henderson and his crew of workers actually used “crowbars, picks, and wedges” to pry the roots out of the half-frozen ground. He sold $800 worth of parsnips from less than an acre. Remember, this was in the 1860s! How much money would that be today? Normally, an acre of parsnips sold then for around $200. My question: who liked parsnips enough to pay that kind of money for them?

I am full of theories. Do parsnips carry some potent drug that sends its devotees into orbit but they aren’t telling for fear the government will outlaw the root? Are parsnips deemed by some to be an aphrodisiac even if they don’t look very phallic? Have those who say they like parsnips lived on them all winter during the Great Depression and so developed a kind of nostalgic loyalty for the root? (That doesn’t seem likely. An old man in Maine told me that when he was a child, his family had only a cellar full of turnips to live on one winter and that he never ever after ate another one.) Maybe there is an ancient recipe, kept hidden from the rest of us by parsnip lovers because they fear if the news got out, a shortage of their beloved vegetable would develop. Got any other ideas?
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