How Parsnips Will Get You Through the Banana Shortage

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

In light of the recent news regarding the impending extinction of bananas, it seems timely to touch upon the strategies that have been put into place in the past to deal with the cycles of its shortage. In the UK, the rationing of bananas during WWII made an unlikely hero out of parsnips. Prized for their inherent sweetness and versatility, there were often used in place of bananas in baked good and in some cases, mixed with essence of bananas to further strengthen the illusion of eating that fruit. While it’s too soon to say whether this current bananas scare will necessitate such sleight of hand, we can still learn a few things from this surprising bit of parsnip history.

We’ve done a fair share of proclaiming our love for this carrot-shaped root over here at The Kitchn. The nutty, buttery flavor of the root has bewitched us, and we’ve been known to put it in a few choice recipes.

Parsnip Recipes from The Kitchn

When parsnips are harvested after a frost, their inherent sweetness amplifies, taking this root vegetable to candy-sweet status. During the Middle Ages, the high sugar content of parsnips led to their use as a sweetener in their native central Europe. Once domesticated to produce a larger root, they became a staple food in medieval Europe and continue to enjoy popularity in those regions today.

Given this history, the use of parsnips as a sweetener seems far in our past. So when I recently came across an application for parsnips in a cake along with a little known nugget about its historical use, I went running for the kitchen mixer and the archives.

In her cookbook, “The New Sugar & Spice,” author Samantha Seneviratne whips up a wintry rendition of carrot cake, subbing the ubiquitous carrots for parsnips — and it’s not because parsnips taste like carrots, despite their similar appearance and close relation. Instead, it has to do with another chapter in the sweeter side of this root vegetable: They bring a flavor more reminiscent of bananas than carrots to the cake.

In her introduction to the recipe for Parsnip Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting, Samantha explains how this practice came about:

I know what you’re thinking: parsnips? Bear with me. Imagine a carrot cake, but better. In my opinion, parsnips bake up into something even more wonderful. They have a subtle, earthy edge, and a soft sweetness reminiscent of bananas. In fact, after World War II, when imported bananas were scarce in the UK, parsnips were often used as a substitute in baked goods.

So there you have it. The humble parsnip might be just the thing to reach for if the banana apocalypse does come. Whether you’re of a mind to add yellow food coloring and essence of bananas for the full effect depends on your devotion to the tropical fruit. In the meantime, get the recipe for Parsnip Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting in Samantha’s book and head to the nearest farmer’s market or grocery store and buy yourself a bundle of parsnips. Close you eyes the next time you take a bite of this root vegetable and see if you get a hint of banana!

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