What’s in a Name?

There is something about a wrong label that invites us to take a second glance. It can be one of those odd names like the main character in Michael Dorris’ novel Yellow Raft on Blue Water. Her name? Rayona – captured when her birth mother glanced at the rayon zipper on the front of her nightie. It can also be a error in facts like the one in the AZ Republic that described my friend Jim Mapstead as Frank Mapstead yesterday or when a lanky bachelor farmer decided to name a rutabaga after himself but labeled it as the Gilfeather Turnip.

The Veg Goddess herself, Deborah Madison, showing a Gilfeather Turnip

The Veg Goddess herself, Deborah Madison, showing off a Gilfeather Turnip

Until a special Slow Food Phoenix lunch with Deborah Madison debuting her recent book, Vegetable Literacy, I had never heard of a Gilfeather turnip. John Gilfeather was a Vermont farmer in the late 1800’s who became well known for growing turnips. His turnips are larger than many as they stay in the ground longer. Apparently, the slow growing variety benefits from the early Vermont frost in that it increases the sweetness while remaining tender – unlike other varieties.

Stories told after his death suggest that Gilfeather understood the principles of competitive markets. It is said that he trimmed the tops and roots from his rutabaga prior to selling them in order to prevent propagation of his variety. Thankfully someone committed root espionage and the Gilfeather turnip continues to be grown by small scale farmers across this country including John McClendon in my own backyard. At the end of October each year, Wardsboro, VT hosts a festival at which every dish served features its famous vegetable.

Why this farmer, so ahead of his time, would call a rutabaga a turnip is not known. While botanically, the edges between the two are blurry, there is little question that the Gilfeather turnip is in fact, a rutabaga.

In researching this post, I turned to Deborah’s own blog and much to my delight, she also had a post on the Gilfeather turnip but not just any Gilfeather. It is the same turnip that she’s holding in the photo above. Synchronicity at its finest.

The Gilfeather Turnip was one of the earliest additions to Slow Food’s U.S. Ark of Taste.

Gilfeather® Turnip Soup
from the Heart of New England


  • ¼ lb butter
  • 3 lbs Gilfeather turnips, peeled & chopped
  • 4 large onions, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 8 cups unsalted chicken stock
  • 1 cup half and half
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg, ground
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • fresh spinach


Melt butter in 5 quart kettle and sauté onion and garlic until soft but not browned. Add stock and turnips and cook until tender. Drain but reserve some of the liquid. Purée mixture in food processor until smooth. Add seasonings and half and half.  Mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary. Add reserved cooking liquid if soup is too thick. Sauté spinach in a small amount of olive oil until just wilted. Use spinach as a garnish on top of the soup before serving.

Truth be told, I have not made this soup but it is incredibly similar to the Turnip soup from Deborah’s book Greens that I blogged about some time ago. Enjoy and contemplate the naming.


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  1. Very interesting. I think I tried a rutabaga but it was long ago. Turnips are good, but I prefer potato. Turnips are probably a better choice. Blessings to you, Tammy…

  2. Deborah Madison is my idol. How lucky to have her at your Slow Food event. I just bought the NEW Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and own Vegetable Literacy as well. Must ask for Gilfeather turnips at Farmer’s Mkt.

    • I saw on her blog that she has another new book. Good for her! Maybe it’s time for your next book to be published.

  3. What an interesting history to this turnip. It’s certainly unlike any turnip I have ever seen before. I’d love to try your turnip soup – perfect with our current very cool temperatures xx

    • and not so much with ours but I am one of those rare souls who can endure soup at any temperature.

  4. Do you think this would work good with any turnip, in case I can’t find Gilfeathers here? You inspire me, Tammi, and make me want to try new things!

    • Yes, of course. The recipe that I posted earlier on 10 soups (linked above) works with standard turnips.

  5. I bet that would be good . . . no matter what you called it.

  6. Such an interesting story–didn’t know about Gilfeather or his turnip/rutabaga! What a marvelous event that must have been–Deborah Madison and Slow Food.

    • Deborah is amazing. They served the Gilfeather’s at the luncheon and that was amazing also.

  7. Interesting post!

  8. Well it does look more like a turnip than a rutabaga–would love to have a taste to compare. I do think of rutabagas as sweeter…

    • I can’t tell you that I could taste the difference but it was not a side-by-side

  9. This is the second mention of turnip in the last week or so. Maybe it’s time to try some again–and this recipe looks good. My daughter said early summer turnips are sweet and delicious.

    • They are definitely not my favorite Kathy but I continue to prepare them year after year just in case I it upon something really special.

  10. Tammy, I know this is an old post but did you know that the Gilfeather Turnip is now the Vermont State Vegetable. We will be celebrating it this weekend at the 14th annual Gilfeather Turnip festival in Wardsboro VT. We even have a new 3rd Edition Gilfeather Turnip Cookbook, filled with yummy recipes for our lowly Turnip. http://www.friendsofwardsborolibrary.org/gilfeather-turnip-festival-.html


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