Parsnips

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Fine words butter no parsnips, yes, but this neglected umbellifer deserves as much praise as possible. Pastinaca sativa has a flavor midway between sweet and earthy. Eclipsed after the potato took hold in Europe and abundant refined sugar made parsnip’s sweetening ability obsolete, the parsnip has hung on, because its fleshy, white carrotlike taproots are so delicious and easy to cook. Although you are unlikely to come upon parsnips on a foreign menu, here, just in case, is a parsnip lexicon: French panais; German Pastinake or Hammelmöhre (mutton carrot); Italian pastinaca; Portuguese and Spanish chirivia; Russian pasternak.* The English name implies a resemblance to turnip (“neep” being an old word and the current Scottish name for turnip).

Parsnips have furrowed stems that resemble celery. The leaves are pointy and dark-green but probably not worth eating, since they contain furanocoumarins that sometimes cause skin irritation. These toxic substances protect the plant from its biggest enemy, the parsnip webworm. Human beings can develop “celery picker’s itch” or “bartender’s itch” after contact with parsnip leaves (as well as the oil of lime peel).

*A German loan word like many other Russian nouns, for example Kartoffel = potato. Boris Pasternak (1890–1960), author of Dr. Zhivago, won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1958.

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