Last Word

Cellars are cool, dark retreats in this sultry summer, and as I was ducking into ours the other day for a brief respite from the heat I nearly pitched headlong over our backup gallon of maple syrup.

Yeah, backup. Like many, we feel an obligation to hoard New Hampshire gold to keep quaint old farms going. OK, to treat ourselves to one of nature’s perfect foods, too.

Of course, one can ladle syrup onto only so many waffles or pancakes or dishes of ice cream, so a few years ago we picked up the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association cookbook, one packed with recipes for everything from biscuits to cakes to … parsnips?

Here’s the entire parsnip recipe, as printed: TRY THIS. COOK YOUR PARSNIPS IN MAPLE SYRUP.

Reading this, I realized I had no idea what parsnips are. I looked in Beard, in Child, in cookbooks galore. Finally, in a water-stained 1948 Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery, picked up in a dank used-book store, I found lots about parsnips – none of it promising.

Parsnips are root vegetables that, I read, aren’t even considered edible until they’ve endured a frost or two before being dug. Even then “they should be steamed in their skins [for up to 40 minutes]…, peeled and slit lengthwise. If the core is large, scoop it out…. It will be tender but rather tasteless… [T]hen put through the ricer and serve like mashed potatoes.”

Boy, talk about newly appreciating the stalwart souls who first farmed these rocky acres and subsisted for winter after winter on – the very term is spooky – root vegetables.

We live in a global marketplace of year-round kiwis and kumquats, asparagus and avocado. It’s easy to forget how, for centuries, New Englanders subsisted for half the year on beets and rutabagas, salt cod and smoked pig parts. And we wonder why they all look so cranky in their moldy old portraits?

The maple cookbook is like many put out by volunteer outfits, eccentric recipe collections dramatically different from the glossy tomes lining upscale bookstore shelves.

Some years back a friend inherited one such from her mother-in-law, who hailed from the Middle East. The cookbook had recipes for stuffed grape leaves and garlicky mayonnaise. Then, this:

Take a few pounds of lamb. Add various spices. Let it sit in a crock in the garage for a month.

Whoa, a month? In a garage?

My friend, a Midwesterner who looks with suspicion on any meat not cooked to a uniform gray, decided to pass. And remembering the crocked meat, I look a bit more kindly on the parsnips recipe.

The maple syrup book also has a recipe to celebrate the end of root vegetable season, when the sap is running and summer’s bounty lies just ahead. Again, verbatim:

“Sap Brew. Use the last run sap and boil down about halfway. Boil checkerberry leaves, pip-six-o-way and hemlock tips separately and then add to sap. Put in barrell (sic) to work, put in bung when fully worked. In the middle of the summer, during haying, chill and enjoy.”

I’ve no clue what checkerberries or pip-six-o-ways might be. But I have a hunch that what they help to brew up more than atones for the parsnips.

Katy Burns of Bow has been a regular columnist for the Concord Monitor since 1999.

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