My mother in law ate a roasted turnip at my house the other day. It was unfamiliar enough to her in that form (she’d had mashed turnips before) that she had to ask me what it was, and it was a reminder of the fact that this time of year truly is the only time that many Americans come in contact with the lesser-known root vegetables. While carrots, potatoes and onions are part of our daily lives, and sweet potatoes and beets are at least intermittenly familiar (if commonly hated), few Americans know celeriac, turnips, parsnips, taro, rutabagas, yams, jerusalem artichokes or many others well enough to pull them out of lineup, much less include them in daily life.
If they do have some familiarity with these foods, it is on the once-a-year thanksgiving table in most cases, rather than as part of daily life, and that’s a pity. Most are prolific, cheap if you are buying therm, easy to grow, nutritious, filling and delicious. Moreover, for those in cold climates they will keep a long time in natural cold storage or in a winter garden. Moreover, if we imagine needing to live in part from our gardens, these crops, along with the familar roots, are likely to be central.
In his book _African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South_, Richard Westmacott notes that a good bit of Southern African American agricultural practice derives from West African and Caribbean practices of “vegeculture” as opposed to European style-seed agriculture. The term, coined by D.B. Grigg in his classic _Agricultural Systems of the World_ is based primarily on root crops, including manioc, sweet potatoes, yams, taro, arrowroot, and in cooler climates was adapted to potatoes as well.
Vegeculture has several advantages over grain culture. For example, you don’t have to till up a lot of ground at once, since these crops are adapted to “patch” culture. They often can be stored in the ground and dug up as needed, and can tolerate being integrated with perennial tree plantings. The tradition of planting in patches and leaving grown fallow to restore fertility in West Africa translated well in slave gardens in the US and Caribbean islands because such gardens often had to be hidden.
Often slave and later share-croppers had only hilly or otherwise difficult to use land, which is best served by being kept in perennial or semi-perennial root crops. Because slaves and tenant farmers had very little time to work their land, they needed high yielding crops that could provide nutrition and caloric density together, with little attention.
In her essay “They have Saturdays and Sundays to Feed Themselves: Slave Gardens in the Caribbean,” Lydia Pulsipher observes that there is considerable evidence that islands that included many slave gardeners didn’t suffer the classic malnutrition of slavery. In fact, the available data on the history of produce sales by slaves (who sold their surpluses to both white and black customers), suggests that white people were considerably healthier on islands that had large numbers of gardens grown by enslaved people. The implication seems to be that the starchy, vegetable poor diet of Europeans on these islands was significantly inferior to the root vegetable and green rich, nutrient rich diet of the slaves, and the influence of slave gardens improved the European grain seed diet enormously (probably to the less-than-total delight of the slaves themselves).
Only 2.5% of American agricultural land produces vegetables, fruits and nuts. The other 97.5% is largely devoted to the production of grains and seeds for things like feeding livestock, feeding cars (ethanol and biodiesel) and transformation into processed food.
What strikes me about this is how small an impact we would on the industrial agricultural juggernaut even if we were able to replace every single vegetable, fruit and nut we eat with locally, sustainably produced produce. That is, if we are looking to home production to help end the tragic power of industrial grain production with its heavy greenhouse gas outputs, water consumption and soil degradation, we need to start thinking in terms of producing more of our total calories at home. Growing our lettuce and tomatoes is a good start, but the next step is a return to home production of calorically dense foods, and vegeculture is part of the answer.
Now the majority of that 97.5% of agricultural land is producing feed for meat, so obviously, and as I’ve said before, we simply must stop eating feedlot animal products – period, no negotiation. All of us need to eat less meat altogether, but also must, if we continue to eat meat at all, choose better sources of grassfed local or home produced protein.
In addition to producing some of our animal products in cities and suburbs from food waste, we may want to get more of our calories from our own yards and from local farmers wherever we are, we need to choose high-nutrition, calorically dense, satisfying foods – root vegetables fit the bill here.
We simply have to change our diets, and eat more whole foods. We also have no choice but to live off a much smaller amount of agricultural land. In a 1994 paper, David Pimmental and Mario Giampietro document the falling amount of available arable land in the US per person.
Between desertification, the transformation of agricultural lands to housing and a rising population, by 2050, there will be less than half as much arable land available to feed each person in the US – a total of 0.6 acres, as opposed to the 1994 1.8 rate. The current American diet requires 1.2 acres. We cannot hope to continue deriving many of our calories from “shadow” acres in other nations, in part because it would be unethical, and in part because it is likely that China, which is right on the cusp of being unable to feed itself. So while we may have the luxury of a considerable amount of land per person, our children will not. It would be unconscionable, however, for us not to begin to transition to living on a fair share.
Which means, if our children are to eat, we have to change the current American diet. One way we can do this by adding land to our stock of “arable” lands – that is, we can start growing food on lawns, in public parks and anywhere else we can fit it. There are millions of acres of lawn available to be transformed into food producing land, much of it in housing built on the planet’s best farmlands. And if there is to be enough food to go around, those gardens will have to include root crops.
Traditional West African gardeners, growing food in hot, dry areas of comparatively low fertility emphasized perennial vegetable crops as their base food crops, as have many Latin American farmers. Indeed, despite their tendency to rely on grain crops, Northern Europe made much of its agricultural prosperity on the turnip, and later, the potato.
Large scale root cultivation enabled the milk culture of northern Europe, and there is archaeological evidence that in areas where turnips were cultivated, people grew taller and healthier than in areas where wheat and barley alone were emphasized. Root crops were higher yielding than grain crops, particularly when grown on a small scale. Hot weather root crops like sweet potatoes were tremendously drought tolerant and could be grown on ground of low fertility.
A few centuries later, John Jeavons at Ecology Action would pioneer an intensively grown diet for a human being based largely on calorie and nutrient dense root crops. In his book _One Circle_ David Duhon documents his life on a diet that could average less than 700 square feet, and heavily based on parsnips, potatoes and sweet potatoes. By eating these in place of grains, it becomes possible to imagine a hand-cultivated, nutritious diet. Now few of us would want to live on as limited a diet at Duhon chose to, but he closely monitored his health and tracked what he ate in such a way as to demonstrate that most of us could do so – and that a more moderate diet in a larger space could offer both balance and less dependence of industrial grain production.
What is remarkable about all of these agricultural systems is that they represent a high yielding, extremely nutritious, good tasting diet that can be produced easily by ordinary people on comparatively small pieces of land using hand tools. Hand production of potatoes, for example, outyielded corn well into the industrial age. Hand produced polycultures of one acre that emphasize roots integrated with perennial plantings a la permaculture or vegeculture and include animals to eat wastes and maintain fertility can dramatically outproduce existing monocultures of grains in terms of total caloric and nutritional output.
But this involves getting more comfortable with roots. That doesn’t mean we won’t eat bread or rice or other grains. But it means that most of us need to encounter roots more often than at Thanksgiving.. And the perfect time to begin such a dietary adaptation is in the autumn, when roots are at their finest. Now is the time to think in terms of beets and parsley root, salsify and carrots (where I am) and in terms of sweet potatoes and taro in hot places. By integrating vegetable proteins or very small quantities of meat with these roots, we can have sufficient protein, excellent nutrition, comparatively low levels of fat and a great deal of food satisfaction.
My family counts root meals as among their favorite – parsnip chowder and root vegetables pot pie, turnip pickles and turnip kimchi, and the ubiquitous-at-our-house pans of roasted vegetables that fill sandwiches. We eat potatoes with cold-weather greens and spicy cheese sauce, or stuff our potatoes with bean chili. Celery root soup and carrot pudding, borscht and roasted beets with tahini, salsify fritters, sweet potato pie and onion soup, the list goes on and on and we’d mourn indeed if we were limited to these things only at Thanksgiving.
In the spring, or in the winter for those in warm climates, we can begin to grow them as well. Of course, in most places, potatoes, onions and other roots are cheap and plentiful – it seems so much more sensible to focus in on high value vegetables like tomatoes and lettuces. But some potatoes on the ground, or sweet potatoes in the backyard not only are a source of security, they represent the beginnings of something important – an old new kind of agriculture, suited to a world in which fossil fuels must be replaced by human power, and old priorities must be replaced by the notion of a fair share.
Happy Thanksgiving folks – I’ll be offline this week making my own root pies, but back next week!