Flying the transatlantic root

You couldn't call it an everyday occurrence.

In fact, I can confidently say it's the first time I've received a turnip through the post.

Maybe traveling turnips are so rare that nobody took the customs declaration seriously. It said: "Turnip." Succinct and accurate. What did the customs people think it meant? Isn't the international conveyance of vegetable matter frowned upon by the relevant authorities? The sender, you see, happens to live in Cape Cod, Mass., 3,000 miles or so from our pad, with a noteworthy body of water intervening.

At one time, "turnip" had a second meaning quite different from a rotund relative of the rutabaga. My dad had one on the end of a chain threaded through strategic buttonholes in his waistcoat and residing in a conveniently located pocket. Hoping lunch was soon, he would finger-fish for his turnip - and glance at its time-telling face. "Turnip," says my "Oxford Compendium," is "a large, thick old-fashioned watch."

This apparent red herring is not just for etymological interest, but also because in this business of flying turnips, time is of the essence. When our American friend e-mailed Nov. 24 to let me know the Eastham Cape Cod turnip was on its way, she noted that it would undoubtedly go soft if it was too long in transit.

The rotating women who run the picturesque Yarmouthport Post Office on the Old King's Highway promised the friend of our friend who mailed the vegetable for her that it would incur no bureaucratic difficulties. National borders mean nothing to a turnip, they assured her.

It should, they affirmed, take only five to seven days to reach us; so it would still be edible on arrival. Then they proceeded to charge a king's ransom of $32.40 for the use of their services in this matter. (The turnip itself cost less than a dollar.)

And then the turnip took 15 days to arrive.

I suppose it will forever be an unsolved mystery as to where this handsome globe-root spent so many days in orbit before splashdown. Did it sit in a corner at the US customs? Did it have audience with officials of the UK Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food? Did it spend long nights in the hold of some lumbering freight plane, while handlers went on strike at the very thought of having to shoulder its considerable weight across the tarmac? Was it misrouted to some obscure Icelandic airport, waiting a week while legal experts debated whether to blow it up or impound it on suspicion of carrying the larva of some unpredictable Mexican weevil?

Humans cross the ocean in six or seven hours. Why are turnips given such a procrastinative deal?

You may ask why this turnip was sent to us so generously in the first place.

Our friend's motives were both simple and profound. I had mentioned (boastingly) that I had more or less filled our freezer with the crops from my plot this year. She countered with: "I bet you don't have a sweet, sweet Cape Cod turnip in there!" I admitted I didn't. Her description of such a turnip, cooked, mashed and laced with loads of butter, salt and pepper, had me going "M-m-m-m-m-m-m!" on the Internet.

So, with a twist of pure daftness that is right up my street, the corollary ensued.

After a week, discreet e-mail inquiries buzzed across the Atlantic. "Any sign of the turnip?" "Not yet." After 10 days, more anxious wonderings.

After 12 days, another concerned message. I had to reply with a promise that I'd let her know the moment the turnip arrived. By this time, both of us thought that it had vanished forever like an unmanned space mission.

Lunchtime today the doorbell rang. At it stood a postman. In his hands was a cardboard box.

"Good thing I'm good at ma' job," he said modestly. "This were addressed to No. 43!" We are No. 48.

And now - at last - it's here, on our kitchen table. Like a fallen moon (or a soccer ball) it rests, a stupendous, globose specimen of specimens.

And, best of all (though a ring of peripheral leaves has started to sprout on its pate like a nascent laurel wreath on a Caesar), this turnip is as good and firm and fresh as the day it was harvested. Not the slightest hint of jet lag.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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