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Central California Life Magazine

Turnips and how I grew to love them

Sep 01, 2015 10:17AM ● By Kevin

Turnips may look innocent enough, but I detest them. My husband used to try to sneak them into the mashed potatoes, but I could tell every time. They have a distinctive, bitter turnipy bite to them that ruins even the most flavorful dish. He finally gave up and accepted that turnips were banned from our house.

I don’t know when this aversion to turnips began. I assume it was when I was a child. I must have had a traumatic experience with a turnip, similar to the trauma I’m sure I suffered with lima beans, which is one of the only other foods that I despise. In fact, I never expected to have to eat another turnip, ever, until I was confronted by them during a recent trip to the San Luis Obispo Botanical Gardens. 

The “hidden gem of the Morros,” as the gardens are fondly called, is in El Chorro Regional Park off Highway 1, halfway between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay. The gardens were founded in 1989 but didn’t open to the public until 1997. They’ve grown into a beautiful collection of plants from the Mediterranean climate zone: California, Chile, South Africa, Australia and the Mediterranean basin. 

“My main goal is to connect people with the natural environment to create a whole new generation of environmental stewards,” says Lindsey Collinsworth, education director at the Botanical Gardens. 

Collinsworth began working at the gardens five years ago as a member of AmeriCorp. She started a cooking class to make use of all of the vegetables that were planted and harvested in the community garden, and she began a partnership with students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. 

The day of my visit, the Cal Poly Health Ambassadors, a group of nutrition and kinesiology majors, were leading an event called Garden Fresh Family Cooking Day. Throughout the year the Health Ambassadors teach children and adults that eating healthfully can be fun and delicious. Each month they hold cooking demonstrations showcasing the vegetable of the month and other recipes. For the garden event they planned a four-course meal to demonstrate the farm-to-table concept first hand.

“The prep starts a month ahead of time,” says Colleen McConnell, a nutrition science major who is in charge of the event. She’s standing in a sparkling clean commercial kitchen in the children’s garden, where she has laid out the ingredients for today’s meal. McConnell and Collinsworth worked together to plan the meal from a list of fruits, vegetables and herbs that are in season and growing in the garden. 

Colleen McConnell, a nutrition science major at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was in charge of the event that teaches adults and children how to eat more healthfully by using vegetables grown in a community garden.

You’re not sure how the kids are going to respond, but you kind of hope for the best.

Front and center: turnips. I have to admit they looked almost pretty, like large globe-shaped white potatoes with a slight purple tint at the crown. They appeared to be harmless enough, but I was skeptical. 

I didn’t mince words. “I hate turnips,” I told McConnell, who smiled sympathetically. She says this is a common reaction to many of the vegetable items they introduce to people. 

“We do some questionable things like asparagus fries and broccoli fitters,” McConnell says. “You’re not sure how the kids are going to respond, but you kind of hope for the best.” 

The menu for the day: Crispy turnip fries, kale salad with herbs and vegetables that the children would pick from the garden, pizza with vegetables from the garden, and strawberry pound cake with whipped cream.

The rest of the Health Ambassadors, six in all, arrived to help prep, but McConnell had done all the work, preparing the pizza dough the night before and laminating all of the recipes for families to take home.

At 11:30, 20 children and adults arrived for the four-hour hands-on demonstration. Collinsworth welcomed the group that had gathered by the outdoor pizza oven.

“We’re going to be harvesting a lot of the food that we’re cooking today from the garden,” Collinsworth says. “We’re going to be learning about those plants, we’re going to be cooking with those plants and then we’re going to be planting more of them.”

She turned the children loose into the garden of raised beds full of herbs and vegetables and explained each one. They filled bowls full of chard, fennel, rosemary, basil and kale. Then Collinsworth led them up a path and showed them wild strawberries. She explained that these strawberries were too small to use for the pound cake recipe, but they were fun to pick and eat fresh from the garden. 

Health Ambassador Mallory Soares of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo oversees the preparation of turnip fries with children participating in Garden Fresh Family Cooking Day.

Usually young kids are really willing to try new things. It’s fun to see them eat their vegetables.
And even grumpy, old kids can have a change of heart. Perhaps it’s time to allow turnips back into the house.

“I want people to come here and explore,” Collinsworth says. “I want them to pick the flowers and to smell the plants and to taste things in our herb garden and our kitchen garden. So really, it’s just giving people that first chance to explore nature.”

Once the vegetables were harvested, the Health Ambassadors brought the cooks to the kitchen where they donned chef’s hats and aprons. Twelve children lined the stainless steel counter, where the Ambassadors had set up twelve cooking stations. The children started by preparing the batter for the pound cake, which went into the outdoor pizza oven. Then they peeled and sliced the turnips, prepared the salad, and rolled out the pizza dough that McConnell had prepared the night before — all under the watchful eyes of the Health Ambassadors.

Slowly, the meal began coming together. Each child made his or her personal pizza — some topped their pizza with kale or herbs and spices. Others went with just cheese.

Soon, the fries came out of the oven, and the pizza went in. I watched as the children gobbled up the turnip fries as though they were French fries. Reluctantly, I tried one and was pleasantly surprised. They definitely weren’t crispy, but they also didn’t taste like the bitter turnips that I remembered. These were delicious. Soft potato like pieces that were salty with a hint of cheese. I have to admit I ate several more and didn’t mind them one bit. 

“We’ve had a lot of success,” McConnell says. “Usually young kids are really willing to try new things. It’s fun to see them eat their vegetables.”

And even grumpy, old kids can have a change of heart. Perhaps it’s time to allow turnips back into the house.

Story and photos by Faith Sidlow.

Faith Sidlow teaches broadcast journalism at Fresno State. She spent the last 28 years as a news reporter and morning anchor at KSEE-TV, where she produced a series called Extreme Faith.

The San Luis Obispo Botanical Gardens offers weekly events for children and adults. Check the website for upcoming events. 

For more information about the Health Ambassadors, go to 

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