Saturday, 27 September 2008

Should we start growing turnips?

I can go months, nay years, without a turnip crossing my mind or my lips. Yet in the last 24 hours, turnips have cropped up not once, but three times! Surely three of anything is a pattern, and therefore of significance? And so I talk, not of "cabbages and kings," but of turnips and banking titans.

Is there anything worth talking about at the moment other than the meltdown of our financial services and banking industry? Despite the fact that I go about my daily life . . . making soup for sick children, ordering bulbs for next spring, attending an Arthur Miller play . . . all I can really think about is the shaky state of our collective finances. I am reading, from afar, about the mighty battle in the U.S. Congress to determine how much, and to what extent, the Treasury (and thus all taxpayers) are going to bail out the banks -- as they list, and sink, under bad debt. A quote from Lloyd Doggett, Democratic congressman and fellow Texan, sums up the situation fairly pithily, I think: "The problem is that the people getting asked to clean up the broken furniture didn't get invited to the party." (The Guardian, 25.9.08)

Who IS to blame for this mess, frankly? Is it really just the Wall Street fat cats? Is it the people who borrowed money they couldn't afford to pay back . . . or the people who let them? Is the Bush regime responsible for the encouragement, by means tacit and overt, to create financial growth by any means possible? Or is the banking crisis just the opportunistic virus which has invaded a body already weakened by its decadent appetites and habits? Have we all just become really greedy?

Yesterday, I was invited to play tennis with three women of slight acquaintance -- they are what I like to think of as jolly good English sorts, "veddy middle class," very WI, and all probably 15 years or so older than me. The last bit -- age -- was particularly pertinent to our discussion because these woman all came of age in an England much different from the one we live in now. England in the 40s and 50s was a much more parsimonious place, by all accounts, and even the well-heeled of that era had more frugal habits than the majority of us do now -- particularly when it came to borrowing money. Being "greedy" was not only sinful, but even worse, it was a sign of bad manners. One of the women claimed to still feel "slightly sick" when she surveyed the vast choice at today's grocery stores. Another woman related that her young son, a fledgling titan, had been interviewing Lehman Brothers refugees all week. Only 30, he was hiring men many years his senior and experience level -- and all of them with crushing monthly direct debits for mortgages and school fees. Apparently, he was feeling grateful about being relatively unencumbered. As lifelong savers, these women's major concern seemed to be how exactly to disperse their savings -- because the UK banks are only going to guarantee a certain amount. They aren't quite to the point of mattress-stuffing, but it's getting close.

In the end, we only played one set of tennis -- because we had squandered all of our time huddling around the AGA. It wasn't like any of us had any real answers, not to mention any in-depth understanding of the situation, but we were all gripped by the need to talk about it. Although it was meant to be a humorous remark, our hostess finally threw out, "Well, I guess that we are going have to go back to growing turnips."

Later that morning, I was scanning the newspaper and I came across an article trumpeting root veg: Humble turnip makes comeback. Apparently Tesco "revealed yesterday that sales (of turnips) were up by 75%" (The Guardian, 25.9.08). The article went on to suggest that inexpensive root vegetables could "bulk" out the diet and stretch the shrinking food pound.

It was during the bedtime story hour that I came across my third reference to turnips for the day.

For several months now, my youngest daughter and I have been working our away through Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series. We are just nearing the end of the third book, On the Banks of Plum Creek. I was an avid reader of these books as a child, and it is interesting to square my memories with the stories as I read them afresh. On one hand, I had an enduring sense of the family's closeness: of Pa's twinkly eyes and fiddle-playing, of Ma's gentle and genteel ways, and of the three sisters -- one good, one naughty, and one just little and inconsequential. On the other hand, I had retained a deep horror of the farming life. Every time you think you've got a decent crop, some plague or weather freakishness is sure to come along and destroy it. Perhaps the most memorable of these natural disasters occurs in this book: the incident of the plague of grasshoppers. Even though the event occurred more than 130 years ago, it cannot be read without a sense of horror and grief as fresh as today's news.

Briefly, the Ingalls family has moved to the Minnesota prairie and invested their meager net-worth in a small farm and sod house. "Pa," who is optimistic to the point of derangement, has planted a field of wheat . . . and then he makes the mistake of borrowing money against what promises to be a splendid harvest. Wilder is a master at foreshadowing and suspense: with each mention of "glass windows" and "new stove" and "we'll start harvesting next week," you know that disaster is around the corner. It arrives in the form of a "glittering cloud" of grasshoppers. -- and like the Biblical plague of locusts, they eat every edible scrap on the land. Pa, who doesn't even have a decent pair of shoes, ends up walking hundreds of miles to find work on another farm. Ma and the girls have to struggle on their own for months -- almost starving in the process, although the book skims somewhat lightly over that fact. The next year, the family manages to salvage a crop of turnips -- and Laura, the story's protagonist, writes of their gratefulness for the plentiful supply of one of the least delectable vegetables. (authorial editorializing)

The "Little House" books are all about the resourcefulness, independence and grittiness of the pioneers who staked out a claim in the American wilderness. They play to every American myth -- including the one that says anyone who works hard will be able to earn their own homestead. I can't help but compare their situation to our current one. There was no such thing as "bail out" for Pa; he literally had to dig himself out of the financial hole he found himself in. A lot of people don't think there should be a bailing-out now -- survival of the fittest and all that -- but I do wonder if we are going to have to prop each other up, or all fall. As Ma says, "There is nothing in the world so good as good neighbors" (p. 178).

And just in case, we might all start planting turnips.


Alyson said...

Well written! I know how you feel, as I'm sure many of us do. It is scary, but I try to be hopeful.

I'm not sure what needs to be done about the situation as I'm no expert. I do think something has to be done though. I'm afraid that if there is absolutely no bail-out that the economy will collapse even more. I wish I knew the answer. Actually, I wish our elected leaders knew the answer.

Cindy said...

The poor turnip gets such a bad rap. We should all learn to eat a few turnips and live within our means. There's nothing wrong with saving for a vacation or that inevitable rainy day for that matter. But then, I'm no economic genius. I just don't spend what I don't have, and I save for rainy days.

Barrie said...

Yes, you should grow turnips. And we'll all scout about for turnip recipes for you!

Audrey said...

Excellent post Bee one of your best.

Did greed have anything to do with the current financial disaster? You bet. It seems to me that when people are making large sums of money and just don't bother to ask themselves where it's all coming from then greed is the priority emotion and not circumspection. And the hedge fund people shorting on banks, it seems to me that those people would eat their young.

I was at a lunch the other day with about 8 very middle-England women (save myself in every way!) and we were (inevitably) talking about schools and I said that I was sure that enrollment at my kids school had peaked this year. People looked at me in wonder about why that would be. It was as if this silly little economic situation on Wall Street really had no impact on their lives. Huh?

Talk about just falling off the turnip truck...

Jan said...

I havent visited for AGES but shall do again soon.
Your blog is fabulous.
Lots of food (!) for thought here.

Debski Beat said...

Bee, I posted a comment and it went somewhere ...who knows where but not here. The basis of it was .... If you have ever seen Blackadder you will know that Baldrick (Blackadder's minion) lived for turnips, when asked if he had a lot of money what would he do with it, he suggested buying the worlds biggest turnip.

For turnip recipes

Navets (baby turnips) are delicious also. I have in my clippings somewhere Baldricks own recipe for turnip soup, I'll dig it out and find it for you.

Bee said...

I wish that our elected leaders "knew the answer," too. Unfortunately, the deregulation that has happened in the U.S. and UK both has done a lot to create the conditions for this perfect storm. Money, power and conscience do NOT seem to go together.

Well, I can't claim to like turnips much -- but I really do believe that people should live within their means. Maybe I will eat more parsnips instead . . . as I like the similarity between that word and "parsimonious." My family is very lucky to be "privileged," but we are savers, too.

Do Californians eat turnips? Did you eat them as a child in Canada? By all means send me a recipe if you come across a good one!

The "greed" question was a rhetorical one, but I like your rejoinder! And also your cutting remark about those who would short-sell the shares who "hold" our savings and pensions. It becomes a sick game, I think.

I think you're absolutely right about school fees . . . people ARE going to feel the bite. Do these women not read the paper? It is really dangerous for people to be so protected from the hideous poverty of the world.

Thank you! We have a web of mutual blogging acquaintances . . . and for me, that link started with you and Jane Smiley!

I did know about the Baldrick/turnip connection. I actually read somewhere that Baldrick's devotion to the "humble turnip" probably contributed to their unpopularity.
We shall look for turnips at the Borough Market, and then you can tell me what to do with them!

Lucy said...

I love the description of Pa Ingalls as 'optimistic to the point of derangement'!

We've wondered how it'll affect us as everybody's pensions etc are to some extent tied up in it; we take it for granted that with saving and thrift and commonsense we can stay safe and secure, but it ain't necessarily so, we're all at the mercy of factors beyond our control. We've already been clobbered by the exchange rate. Then with Bradford and Bingley going bottom-up, which is where we've invested a little nest-egg for the Princeling, and that somehow made me feel cross, since we'd just got to a point where we could be a little bit generous with people we cared about... anyway, that's a luxury too I suppose.

Still mustn't grumble, as we middle England middle aged women were bred to say!

Turnips are OK when very young and tender. Parsnips are really much better but not widely known outside the UK. We may yet resort, like Balzac's poor reduced country families, to subsisting on chestnuts...

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, you ask so many good questions. Audrey is right this is one of your best posts, and one of the more thoughtful pieces I’ve read on this subject.

The heads of the bank are to blame as well as the administration. Help is still needed. The problem is that after Iraq it’s pretty hard to trust the administration. It will cost the taxpayer, but doing nothing could cost more. Oversight better be part of the equation.

Turnips? I hope not. I agree with Lucy, parsnips are much better, especially roasted.

These are bitter times, but it’s worth remembering that the economy was over inflated. There’s a long way to fall. I’m thinking more Grapes of Wrath than Little House on the Prairie if Congress doesn’t bail out the banks. It’s a grey, wet weekend.

Anne said...

Excellent post, Bee. It seems to me that the current situation is a mash-up of the mistakes (and, yes, greed) of many different people at many different levels. "Living within one's means" is a value that seems to have fallen by the wayside, not just for individual people but also for companies and even society as a whole. As dire as things are for some people right now--and I feel awful for them--I don't think that the collective humbling we're getting is, in the end, a bad thing. It's just such a shame that the lesson has to be learned at the expense of so many people's jobs, retirement savings, homes, and so on.

Meanwhile, just as I'm a fan of diversifying one's financial portfolio, I'm also a fan of diversifying one's garden portfolio. I say grow turnips and challenge yourself to make something delicious with them! Just be sure to share the recipe so that we can all follow suit. :)

Shauna said...

turnip soup

turnip mash

turnip bread


Just a Plane Ride Away said...

I agree as well, excellent post! I was particularly interested to read about the conversation with your tennis companions. Now I really wonder what it must have been like around here 20-30 years ago if the choices in the market seem to be excessive today.

Roxi learned to grow turnips in first grade as part of the garden project at school. Unfortunately, she left them on our deck and Trudy ate them. So, I guess they can't be all that bad!

Dick said...

What an unpromising subject for attention and what a mighty post it has produced! This is an essay in the true tradition - apparently discursive, but focused and acute and so elegantly written. I’ve linked to it from the Patteran Pages and followed up your question: ‘Who IS to blame for this mess, frankly?’

Brave Sir Robin said...

Well, as I'm too damned angry to write about the financial meltdown without making your excellent blog r-rated, I will instead sing the praises of the humble turnip!

The entire plant can be eaten. The tops, (especially when young) are excellent. The can be simmered or as one would for mustard greens. The bulb can be roasted, mashed, or diced into the pot to cook with the greens.

They also make an interesting addition to a crudites platter. They have wonderful peppery flavor and stay crisp a long time.

. . . . well, OK, I tried. I do like turnips, but I, like you, can't shake the association they seem to have with hard times.

They always bring to my mind the scene in Pillars of the Earth When Tom Builder is forced to abandon his new born son to the elements, because turnips are all he has left to feed his family.


Debski Beat said...

This is odd, I have looked for the recipe for Baldricks turnip soup and will continue to look tomorrow but, in within the news today in 2 Brit national newspapers there are articles on turnips, so, Bee, you are ahead of the fashion, turnips are in, turnips are the new fois gras (as they might say in fashion circles). There are adviseries on where to buy turnip seeds and no doubt Gordon Ramsay will very soon make a public declaration on turnips.
So, we may all be broke in a few months but at least we will have the turnip.

Bee said...

I was happy to hear that B&B is going be brought under the governmental wing . . . hopefully, the Princeling's nest egg will be protected. I can't bear the thought of anyone's hard-earned savings or pension being lost.

I didn't think about chestnuts! Will research other foraging possibilities, I think. :)

Grapes of Wrath, indeed. I agree that the bail-out is probably the lesser of the two evils.

I totally agree with you on the "collective humbling" bit. There really were all sorts of corrections that needed to be made, but one regrets how innocents get side-swiped. I like your point about diversifying portfolios -- garden and financial! I spent a happy hour or two today, planning next year's garden.

Turnip metaphor! May I eat bean soup instead?

Will Trudy eat anything? (I want to be able to put this into some kind of context.) I don't think I ever ate turnip in Texas.

Thanks so much -- for your kind words, and also for engaging (so interestingly) in this debate with me.

Yes, anger seems to be the correct emotion here. With your appreciation for turnips and radishes both, you will be well-equipped for the return of the veg garden. Instead of "V" for Victory, we will have a "P" for penury.

That is so funny! But will it serve?

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Bee, Trudy won't eat Marmite even though she's half English (pointer)--haha!

Bee said...

Thank goodness for some comic relief. Dogs are good for that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bee. I must ask for a translation of the acronym "WI" in reference to your tennis group.

I like little baby turnips like radishes in salads. Roasted turnips are okay but I think they are my least loved root vegetable. I even like rutabagas (aka swedes) more, turnips are watery by comparison.

Bee said...

WI refers to the Women's Institute. Have you never read about it in an English book? I looked at their website, but it doesn't really give you a sense of the WI in the way that people commonly think of it. But how to convey that to you when you don't really know what I mean? In England, the WI stereotype is "Jam and Jerusalem" . . . meaning jam-making and singing the popular hymn named Jerusalem that ends with these famous words -- "in England's green and pleasant land." WI women are do-gooding, community-building types.

Brave Sir Robin said...

So is WI sort of the Junior Service League of England?

Taffiny said...

Turnips have been visiting me too.

I never think about them ever (I've never tasted one), so how odd a few days back (sometime within the past 7 days) a line popped into my head and insisted on being included in my story, "I have not lived on turnips alone." I told the line to shove off, but it refused, so I had to work it in. I was pleased to find in researching turnips that the line was apt, for I hadn't known enough about them to know it would be.

So what's up with these turnips? How are they launching themselves into our thoughts?

Economy is indeed concerning. And I don't know what the full impact of this situation will be.
We are already feeling a pinch from the cost of oil, and the cost of food (going up up up).

I've been avoiding the grocery store all week, it ends up costing too much money when I go, so Bob asks me what we need, and goes and gets that (he is actually able to go in for three things and only buy three things).

Bee said...

Interesting how turnips are now burrowing into the writer's subconsciousness! They are not a thing I think of much, or eat ever . . . but they seem to represent the humblest, meanest food. They are definitely associated with WWII gardens over here -- and the Scots, who actually like their "neeps."

I have noticed a certain thriftiness in my food preparation these days! Lots of soup -- chicken noodle tonight (boiled up from last night's carcass).