Monday, October 15, 2007

Rooting for Turnips

My recent spate of entries that mention root vegetables (pumpkins, rutabagas and turnips)* isn't quite done. A British reader of this blog, Alan, writes:

Your reference to swedes and turnips reminded me of when I was young. At Halloween children would hollow out turnips, carve a face on them (or get a parent to) and carry them around with a lighted candle within. I can still smell the singed turnip tops, when I think about it. Nowadays children carry pumpkins around, and dress up in fancy dress like their American cousins. A mixture of the fact that Pumpkins are easier to get, people have more disposable money, and the commercialism of Halloween means kids wouldn‘t put up with a turnip anymore. Those were simpler times.

*I appear to be wrong about pumpkins being a root vegetable. Drat.

All this was news to me, but in a later email, Alan helpfully provided corroboration in the form of the following links:

A couple of links, first a brief and not very good introduction to it:

Someone having a go at carving:

This one has some photos, the practice seems to have been common throughout Europe:

Well, long story short, it's true! Not only that, but our friend the rutabaga (swede) is also considered Jack O'Lantern material.

As Alan says, however, the pumpkin is rapidly taking over from the turnip in UK Halloween celebrations. Some of this is the influence of American culture, but as several articles point out, pumpkins are also naturally hollow, a lot easier to carve, better illuminated when the candle is lit inside, and smell better than burning turnip. Also, one can bake and eat the pumpkin seeds, and even make pumpkin pie. Much as I like rutabagas, I must admit that I like the taste of "pumpkin anything" about 1000% better.

Back to Alan for the last word on this:

I was talking to my Dad about them. He is 82. He mentioned that when he was young, before the war, he was a member of a group of kids who used to pinch turnips from farmers fields to carve them.

I live in the North-East of England. We called them Narkys here.

I know Pumpkins are easier to carve and look better, but I miss the old traditions. They are dying out so quickly. Eventually the world will be one homogeneous mass. You touched on it when you mentioned Route 66 and everywhere now having a Denny’s.

You never know, I might carve a turnip this Halloween.


This is a good reminder to me, about several things. One is that an American such as myself can watch a lot of BBC and ITV television shows, read British novels, go to England and hack around by tube and by train, and still there will always be large pockets of British culture of which the American knows nothing. And really, that's a good thing. It means that that's always more to learn, and that there is still plenty that is unique to one country or another. Two, it tells us that despite this, it is all too easy for regional differences to fade, subsumed by mass media-driven culture. And three, it suggests to me that I should revive my Holiday Trivia postings of a few years back, and do a Halloween round of questions.

So I will.


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