Best Cook: The Turnip King
Try his recipe for turnip creme brulee, yes, creme brulee, too.
“I’m a foodie — I love to cook, I love to eat,” says Geoffrey Antoine, explaining how he came to win first prize in the recipe contest sponsored by the Eastham Turnip Festival in Eastham, Massachusetts. “One day I was driving along in my truck, and I heard about the contest on the radio. I thought it sounded like fun.” Standing in his South Yarmouth kitchen, whirling turnip and heavy cream in the blender, he’s got a pie under way.
With his goatee, cargo shorts, Hawaiian shirt, and bare feet, he could be on vacation in the islands.
“I tried making the first one like an apple pie, slicing the turnip and baking it between two crusts,” Geoffrey recalls. “Oh, that one was pretty bad.” So he thought it over and decided to make the next one like a pumpkin pie — except he’d use only the celebrated white, sweet, creamy Eastham turnip, pride of the town and focus of this funky annual festival, which includes turnip bowling, Mr. Turnip Head contests, and song and dance in celebration of the humble rosy-topped tuber. His second version was a hit.
“The pie had been bouncing around in the back of my truck all day before I entered it,” Geoffrey says. “I almost lost my nerve.” He placed the pie next to the other efforts, which included turnip brownies and turnip gnocchi. When he got home that night, he got the call: His pie had won first prize. “I couldn’t have been more surprised,” he says.
In the capsule of his small but efficient kitchen, he’s a blur of activity, whisking, whirling, and periodically washing up the dishes as he goes along. The way he moves,
you half expect he’ll do a back flip in the midst of it all, land on his feet, and continue with the preparations.
A native of Quincy, Massachusetts, he’d been coming to Cape Cod with his family on vacation since he was born. Once he got out on his own, he settled in South Yarmouth for good. Divorced and the father of three children, this 52-year-old painting contractor says he’s always been a home chef: “I had to cook when I was growing up, and I figured if I was going to cook, I wanted to eat something good.”
The trick, Geoffrey says, is to cook the turnip until it’s really soft and blend it smooth, no lumps. He scrapes the filling into the crust and tucks the pie safely in the oven. With the blue ribbon in the bag for 2005, he came forward the following year with his next creation: turnip crème brûlée. It won the People’s Choice award. “I thought that was even better,” he says. “The other one, you get the votes of just three judges. But People’s Choice means everyone at the festival votes, so that meant even more.”
Eastham turnips are rare. Believers say there’s no turnip like it — not even the ones grown in the next town of Orleans. “You can get the seeds and try to grow them yourself,” Geoffrey explains, “but it has to be Eastham. It’s the soil, the Eastham soil.” Only a handful of people grow them — they’re harvested from November through February — and only a few farm stands and markets in Eastham sell them.
The buzzer sounds, and Geoffrey pulls the pie out of the oven. “Oooo! That looks so very fine!” he croons. With a sharp knife, he pierces the center of the pie and declares it done. “You’ll probably compare this to a pumpkin pie,” he warns, “but just remember it’s not pumpkin. It’s the turnip. The turnip!”