During the times of knights and minnesingers, the parsnip was a most popular vegetable. One intriguing medieval recipe calls for sautéing and baking parsnips with almonds, chestnuts, raisins, nutmeg, and expensive spices. Their distinct flavour goes very well with roast venison, mutton, or beef. But parsnips were just as popular in the humble kitchens of the simple folk as they were in the cuisine of the aristocracy.
Before potatoes replaced them, parsnips were an important filling and nourishing ingredient to stews and soups, as the root contains a lot of sugar, starch, and fatty oils. It was often used to strengthen the old, the weak, or the convalescent. Even into the nineteenth century milk with parsnips was given to help those with consumption; those experiencing the continual depletion, emaciation, loss of strength, and appetite of the then-fatal disease tuberculosis.
The root vegetable not only makes humans healthy and robust; it is also good for animals. Parsnips were grown in fields to fatten pigs and keep them healthy over the winter. The holy hermit St Anthony, who is the patron saint of pig herders, butchers, and brush makers is, of course, also the patron of pig fodder, thus he is the guardian of the parsnip root.
Since St Anthony is also the protector against pests and bubonic plague, the common folk believed that eating parsnips would help them avoid these terrible scourges. Parsnip roots were also fed to cattle; milk and butter were richer if cows were given parsnips to eat in the winter months along with hay and other roughage.
All in all, the parsnip enjoyed a long period of popularity up until the early nineteenth century, when potatoes began to dominate agriculture, at which point parsnips faded into obscurity.
It still remains a mystery as to where and when parsnips were first cultivated. Archaeologists have found its seeds at excavation sites of the late Neolithic lake dwellers in the foothills of the Alps, but we cannot know whether the plant was cultivated or gathered wild. In any case, the wild plant is a native of Europe.
The Celts, Germanics, and Slavs, and occasionally the Romans, cultivated whole fields of this root crop. It is reported that Roman emperor Tiberius (42 BC - 37 AD) liked the hearty flavour so much that he had the vegetable imported from the provinces along the Rhine.
Knowing nothing more specific about the parsnip until the seventeenth century, hardly any linguistic distinction was made between parsnips, carrots, parsley roots, skirret, or any other edible roots. The name parsnip merely means ‘a dug-out root’.
In its wild form the parsnip has been known for ages as a healing plant. Its concentrated, life-giving energy is what makes it an ideal food for consumption. Folk sayings echoed the view: “Leaves and seeds cooked in wine and drunken mornings and evenings, helps infertile women be able to conceive.” The German name buck’s herb was given to the parsnip not only for its aphrodisiacal nature but also for its strong odour.
In England, more so than elsewhere, parsnips remained a treasured vegetable for a long time. Nicholas Culpeper (1616 - 1654) described the medicinal effect as “opening, diuretic, carminative, cleansing, and good for the bite of wild animals”, owing to its effect on the urinary-genital system. He placed the plant under the rule of Venus. The root also contains inulin and some fats.
The poor could not afford doctors and medication, so were generally undernourished. The preacher, John Wesley (1703 - 1791), founder of the Methodist movement in England, wrote a booklet for them: Primitive Physic: An Easy and Natural Way of Curing Most Diseases.
The book listed simple naturopathic treatments and local domestic plants that were both free, and easily found. He suggested applying a poultice made of mashed parsnip leaves and stalks to cancerous abscesses and for asthma and tuberculosis, he recommended eating parsnips.
The booklet became very popular among the settlers in America, where there were few doctors. Parsnips therefore became an integral part of American folk medicine.