My father loved fried parsnips, so we planted them every year. The sandy soil of our garden plot meant that we had to dress it with composted manure from my grandfather’s farm, and I suspect that Dad spread extra on that part of the garden where the parsnip seeds would be planted. Parsnips do well in sandy soil with plenty of compost to hold moisture and provide nutrients.
When October arrived, Mom or Dad would dig a couple of parsnips “to see if they were ready.” If they were sweet, fried parsnips would begin appearing on the table every week. If they still tasted more like carrots, we would wait for harder frosts to turn more parsnip starch into sugar. I don’t remember that we left the parsnips in the ground through the winter, but Dad and I dug some after the top inch or two of soil was frozen. Parsnips need frost to ripen properly and are often left to overwinter in the ground where winter is less severe than in northern Wisconsin.
Though many people are unfamiliar with them today, parsnips were one of the premier root vegetables in Europe and the United States until the middle of the nineteenth century. The wild ancestor of the parsnip is found in many parts of Europe and Asia and was cultivated by the Greeks and Romans over 2,000 years ago.
The parsnip has a long and distinguished history. It was a vegetable enjoyed by commoners and royalty alike. According to the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, the emperor Tiberius Caesar loved parsnips and imported loads of them from farmers who grew them along the Rhine river in northern Germany. He reportedly even accepted parsnips as part of the tribute (taxes) paid by the province.
In northern Europe where parsnips grew especially well, they were a staple and the people who settled the New World brought parsnip seeds with them. Virtually every family in Wisconsin would have planted parsnips in their gardens in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The sweet white cousin of the carrot almost certainly graced the tables in the Bell-Tierney home.
They went into the soup pot, were fried or roasted and were even eaten as a sweet dessert. Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare both probably enjoyed parsnip pie, and even the playwright might occasionally have been able to afford a luxurious dish of parsnips with an orange and marigold sauce garnished with slices of that exotic fruit.
I have never eaten a parsnip pie or any other parsnip dessert, but I was forced to eat my share of fried parsnips. For that I am thankful. We learn to enjoy the foods that our parents and friends introduce to us. Some food writers say that parsnips are an acquired taste. This is true. However, all foods are acquired tastes. Hunger helps too.
My sisters in Hayward confirmed that my memory of how Mom cooked fried parsnips was right. Here is how to make two servings of your own fried parsnips.
4 or 5 parsnips (each about 5 to 7 inches long)
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp. salt, divided
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 or 3 T vegetable oil
Peel the parsnips, cut them lengthwise into slices about a quarter inch thick. Some of the slices from the edges will be thinner, but don’t worry about it.
Put the slices into a saucepan and cover them with water. Add a dash of salt and bring them to a boil. Simmer the parsnips for five to seven minutes until they are just fork tender, not as my sister said, “until they get mushy.”
While the parsnips are cooking, mix a scant half teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper with the flour. You can stir it together on a plate or shake it up in a bag. Cover the bottom of a skillet with oil and set the pan over moderate heat.
Drain and flour the slices and fry them until they are light brown. Turn them often to keep them from burning. If you have too many slices to fit in a single layer in your skillet, fry them in batches, adding a little oil if necessary. Remove the slices from the pan, drain them on a paper towel and serve them warm.
NOTES: Though she had never tasted fried parsnips before, Jerri liked them. I had, however, delayed dinner an hour.