Starting off #ExcerptWeek for us this time around is novelist and essayist, Bill Engleson, with a very funny essay on–of all things–turnips! Welcome, Bill, and thanks for sharing with us today.
“A degenerate nobleman is like a turnip. There is nothing good of him but that which is underground.” 17th century saying.
There are so many issues aflutter in the world today that even I, a practitioner of tangential thought, am shocked and embarrassed that I am taking the time to ruminate on the lowly turnip. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and war occupy the airwaves. I follow all of their ramifications religiously, never wavering from the belief that one has a responsibility to remain current. These events are often overwhelming; they are frequently of catastrophic size. Certainly this past year has witnessed the giant tsunami that steamrolled the Far East and Hurricane Katrina that sank New Orleans, not to mention the massive earthquake along the Pakistan border whose toll, at this writing, can only increase.
But to cope with the monumental hugeness of nature and man run ferociously amuck, I have to seek out smaller issues, tinier morsels of potentially digestible material.
Hence, the story of my life and how it collided with The TURNIP.
“The candle in that great turnip has gone out.” Winston Churchill, commenting on the passing of conservative politician, Stanley Baldwin
Growing up, my diet was a simple affair. Both of my parents had humble origins and even humbler palates. Meat and potatoes, potatoes and meat were the order of pretty much every day. These staples would often be supplemented by plain salads and boiled, sopping wet vegetables. My father, manly in ways I would never be, rarely cooked, and my mother resisted kitchen captivity except when domestically unavoidable. While I never thought of her as a stellar cook, she could whip up a fried or boiled dinner with the aplomb of a third world street vendor.
Even under these adverse conditions, my appetite was not intimidated. I was not a finicky eater. While I may not have wanted to chow down with others as regularly as my family expected, displaying an early antisocial bent I am still troubled by, once settled in at my eating stall, I rarely left any food on the plate. That really was the key dining rule in our home: “Finish your plate before you leave the table, Willy,” was a frequent refrain from my pop. Food was not to be wasted.
Often I would have hoovered my food down and be ready to leave the table before my mother even had a chance to join us. Clearly I was a rude little bugger, an observation my father would frequently make. He would say, “You’re a rude little bugger, isn’t he Marion?” And my mother would say, “Isn’t he what, Sterling?” And he would answer, “Isn’t he a rude little bugger? He doesn’t even have the decency to wait until you sit down.” And she would refrain, “Let the boy eat, Sterling. Can’t you see he’s hungry?”
By the time my father had made his initial observation, he was half way through his first helping. He was a hefty man, setting an unavoidable standard for me, I’m afraid. He demonstrated his love for my mother, amongst other ways, by courageously seeking out seconds of her cooking at every turn. No matter what she prepared, he christened it “delicious, darling.” My mother would invariably look at him in adoration, turn back to what was occupying her on the stove and parry his praise with “you’re a fibber, you are. A woman can`t believe a word you say. You’d eat an old leather shoe if I cooked it just right.” She knew my father’s love was, in part, measured by food consumption and the absolute pleasure he found in eating.
I didn`t really know it then but my mother found equal pleasure in simply having enough to cook. Simply having enough was such a joy for her. Growing up, there was often little or nothing to eat, except what the surrounding countryside and family garden could provide. She was raised on a small scrub farm in the shadow of the Rockies. Her parents were the children of farmers and grew what their ancestors grew; root vegetables. Parsnips and turnips headed the list. My mother was raised on a diet of rogue weed vegetables, heavily supplemented by roots. This Spartan lifestyle strongly influenced her culinary routine.
“Since I was a wee thing, no higher than a root vegetable, I have hated turnips.” Bill Engleson, pretty much any time anyone cared to know.
Entering my pre-school years, I began to feel my spoiled-child oats by expressing modest likes and dislikes about food. For instance, a couple of my favorite foods were canned Chili Con Carne and Chef Boyardee’s Ravioli. I especially liked to eat them for breakfast. As the families financial status improved, my mother, for reasons we never really talked about, acceded to my idiotic breakfast requests. Now, as a middling vegetarian with an occasional fish fetish, I marvel at my childhood’s diet. Still, as I have noted, my mother found pleasure in seeing her children and husband eat. She found joy in providing the food no matter that it was fried, boiled beyond recognition or scooped out of a can.
I have always refused to eat turnips. When my mother cooked them, she would leave lumps of hard pieces, barely boiled or baked hunks of root, mixed in with a stew of soggy mushy turnip shreds. Even with salt pepper and butter, they struck an off chord with me. On those occasions, I would lie my eating utensils down, put on my patented turnip face, the one suggesting imminent death from poisoning, and refuse to eat. If I came nose-to-nose with that agonizingly distorted face on that horrid little boy today, I would strenuously avoid recognizing his sappy ploy, purist that I am. My father, however, was of the jump-in-with-both-feet-before-you-know-how-deep-the-pond-is school of parenting. In short order, he would erupt in drill-sergeant fashion and fire a command. “Fine, go to your room, Willy. You can eat them later.” Though the threat was always made by my father, my mother was always expected to carry out the execution. She never did. My father likely knew she never would. As the night faded, the turnip wars would lessen. My mother clearly knew that uneaten turnips were best fed to the hogs. Hog-less city dwellers that we were, she would eventually turf them into the waiting garbage can, a suitable repository, to my mind for the troublesome turnip.
“I was the fattest baby in Clark County, Arkansas. They put me in the newspaper. It was like the prize turnip.” Billy Bob Thornton.
As I grew older, we had turnips less and less. When we had them, the expectation that I eat the sinewy mess considerably diminished. Eventually they disappeared from my mother’s modest repertoire.
On one occasion before that happened, I created a small, emotionally wrenching faux pas, when, upon returning from a church potluck, I commented positively on one of the dishes; a turnip casserole heavily sweetened, no doubt. My mother was shattered. She tried for years to prepare the root vegetable to my liking; it had never happened; she always failed to adjust my snooty little opinion. Now, some strange woman (I assume a church lady because it was not my experience that church men prepared potluck dishes) had won me over. Some stranger was my turnip love.
Till the end of her days my betrayal and her failure were the source of an inordinately vast amount of mother/son banter.
I came to believe that any opinion I held had less validity in the eyes of my mother I had wavered in my opinion of the lowly turnip. She did not openly humiliate me but the sweet snicker in her voice left no doubt that that one complementary slip had driven a wedge between us.
“In 1960, Denman farmers grew 318 tonnes of turnips.” Marcus Isbister-quoted in Islands in Trust, 1988
Today, to my surprise, I find myself living on an Island well known for turnip production. The irony has not escaped me. Recently, after a kind neighbor threatened to create a turnip dish only the most taste bud-challenged could not enjoy, my love took up the challenge herself. She bought a locally grown turnip, sliced it up, steamed it and fried the slices in bread crumbs, oyster like. I love oysters in such an inverse ratio to my feeling for the turnip that I suppose she thought a similar preparation might win me over.
Thus, for me, the worse in “for better or worse” may have come down to one, later-in-marriage turnip meal. Part of me wants to abandon my childish, lifelong rejection of the aggravating turnip. What holds me back from this display of maturity in the uncomfortable sense that, if I do embrace the damn vegetable this late in life, it will have been the gravest betrayal of my mother. In this regard, my past holds me captive.
Mom may have enjoyed some of my discomfort.
Born in Powell River, British Columbia and raised in Nanaimo, with his first year of life trapped aboard his parents leaky (well, it probably wasn’t but he likes to think it did leak) fish boat, Bill Engleson spent most of his working life in New Westminster and retired to Denman Island in 2004. He writes fiction (including, for the past two years, the marvellous style of writing known now as flash fiction and once known as somewhat shorter stories), opinion pieces, poetry, and letters to the editor. He has been writing most of his life and his first couple of poetic efforts were printed in his mid-teens in the, now, sadly defunct Nanaimo Daily Free Press. His favourite authors are John Steinbeck, George Orwell and Dashiell Hammett.
He is working on a number of projects including a prequel to his first novel, Like a Child to Home, entitled Drawn Towards the Sun, a mystery, Bloodhound Days and a second collection of home-grown, satirically tinged essays, DIRA Diary: Tall Tales of Democracy in Traction.
Living on Denman has been inspirational for him. The monthly journal, The Flagstone, has printed reams of his material. Another large part of his inspiration has been the annual Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival. The festival includes presentations by local authors and Engleson has had the good fortune to share his work most years.
Recently his poetry has appeared in Minus Tides International and a forthcoming anthology of poetry honouring Fukushima. Here is a link: https://fukushimapoetry.wordpress.com/
He has been a volunteer in the artistic and political life of Denman and currently serves on two community health related Boards of Directors including, presently, completing his third term as Chairperson of the Hornby & Denman Community Health Care Society.
Among Bills motivations to write are the 1960s, a brief military career, 24 years in child welfare, a sense of humour, living with cats and marriage. He is a graduate of SFU and a retired and non-practicing Registered Social Worker.