Turnip Man

The Turnip Man is a sprightly Canadian centenarian who still rides a bicycle. His real name is Emery Kilmer, of London, Ontario, and he celebrated his 100th birthday on October 1.

"We called him the turnip man because he used to come play cards with his car full of turnips and sell them for 25-cents apiece," says Geraldine Martin, who has been playing cards with Kilmer for 20 years. ("I used to give those away," Kilmer chips in).

We don't know whether eating tons of turnips accounts for Emery's remarkable fitness, but mangold wurzels, those football-size turnips English farmers grow for sheep and cattle feed, were once used to cure coughs.

"One use of wurzels not widely known was as an excellent cough cure," says Joan F. Basden, whose father, Richard Blacklocks, grew them on an 11-acre farm in Romney Marsh, Kent, in the 1920s and 30s. "Slices about half an inch thick were interlaced with brown sugar and allowed to stand. A thick syrup, ideal for children with whooping cough, was produced."

Scots eat a lot of turnips, a word they shorten to neeps. "Haggis is traditionally served as 'haggis, neeps and tatties,'" says Judy Creighton, in The Canadian Press. "The neeps are mashed turnip or swede, with a little milk and allspice added, and the tatties are creamed potatoes flavoured with nutmeg."

What's the difference between turnips and swedes? On October 1 - the London (Ontario) Turnip Man's birthday - the London (England) newspaper The Times published this letter from Dr Nick O'Donovan, of Havant, Hampshire:

"Sir, Here on the South Coast, when I go to my local vegetable shop and ask for swede I am given a large, orange- fleshed vegetable. If I ask for turnip I receive a much smaller, whitish vegetable with a green top. When making the same request for these vegetables when staying at my in-laws' in Middlesbrough, the orange vegetable is proffered when requesting turnip and the smaller green-topped vegetable when requesting swede. I wonder at which junction of the M1 this nomenclature changes, and why?"

That letter drew these replies from other readers:

"A survey of the company tearoom suggested the border to be Yorkshire, with Nottinghamshire and Cheshire clearly in the 'South'. Lancashire is divided, with Manchester supporting the South but other areas applying the northern interpretation. Middlesbrough and Tyneside clearly follow the northern option but the Central North and Cumbria revert to southern ways. On very small samples the Irish Republic and New Zealand appear to follow the northern pattern while the US opted for southern. Australia is apparently too dry to grow either vegetable. ." Mark Wilson, c/o Delta Biotechnology, Nottingham.

"Here in the far South West we receive a large orange vegetable when asking for a turnip. I understand that if you require what in my youth in the South East was called a turnip you have to ask for a 'white turnip'. Incidentally, turnip of the orange variety is an essential ingredient of a Cornish pasty." - Mrs Ruth Parker, Mousehole, Penzance, Cornwall

"Alas, I cannot answer Dr O'Donovan's question. But perhaps he should note that in Northern Ireland the big orange thingy is a turnip, the small whitish one a white turnip, and a swede is the England football coach. - Peter Tray, London N12.

© 2002, Eric Shackle