But I read about parsnips somewhere, and they were described as an overlooked vegetable with a delicate taste. "I like them," Greg said last spring, when I consulted him on what to plant. It never occurred to me to wonder how he knew he liked them. Since as far as I knew he hadn't had any in the past twenty years or so. Greg has this mythical childhood well of knowledge that he can evoke whenever you try to push him. I bought a packet of seeds.
The first planting did not go well. But then, most of the first plantings of everything got washed away in a series of spring deluges. I planted the seeds again. And again. Somewhere along the way I read that parsnips are like that. The seeds themselves are sulky, easily offended, and often don't germinate, maybe just to spite themselves. You must keep replanting and replanting until they do. That was encouragement enough, a kind of affirmation that my personal experience was a common one. I did not feel so alone with my failed parsnip row, and after it finally took hold and began to grow its big dark leaves, I even went so far as to plant a second row.
By then I was actually falling in love with parsnips. I began to realize that they were good for the lazy gardener. Once the leaves have emerged from the ground all you need to do is wait. And you can pull them any time you like, the later the better. Frost only improves their taste. There's nothing urgent about the parsnip harvest. They are iffy and hard to please in the start-up phase, but once they take hold they are constant. I liked that.
And at the end I discovered one more good thing about parsnips. They are beneath the notice of deer and sheep. I guess it's because of their poisonous leaves, although they gobbled up the tomatoes and peppers, stems, leaves and all, which are also said to be poisonous. But after the garden was laid low the parsnips still stood, heroic in an overlooked kind of way.
So I have begun to harvest them. So far I have pulled up about a dozen, and there are another three dozen still in the ground. The first ones were a revelation: huge white things that had grown deep beneath the soil, all unbeknownst. Some were fancied-up with extraneous waving rootlettes that gave them a certain aura of wildness, like they'd try anything once. Others were sober and long and thick and pale -- iconic parsnips, a fitting food in this province of fish and bread and tea, as Elizabeth Bishop calls it.*
Greg has found a recipe for parsnip patties in the old Farm Journal Cookbook, and I'm sure there is a parsnip and leek and potato soup in our future. We could call it Left Alone Soup, since those are the three vegetables in our garden that the deer and sheep ignored.
*In her poem The Moose.