Before there was sugar, there were parsnips. Yes, before they raised cane, they harvested a root vegetable and used it to sweeten meals, as if it were a spice or an herb. As a matter of fact, it is from the parsley family. Why is this thing that looks like a cream-colored carrot now growing in my mental garden?

Well, a few weeks ago, Susie Middleton published my recipe for Casablanca Chicken in her Cook The Vineyard newsletter. I’ve been getting good feedback, so to speak. Friends like the meal, a hearty assemblage of chicken thighs, parsnips, carrots, onions, dried apricots, pitted olives and cinnamon, bathed in chicken stock and served on orange juice-infused couscous.

A few folks wanted to know how I found out you can actually make something with parsnips. These friends are the ones who spot parsnips in a market or at a farm stand and keep walking, thinking what they’re passing are some dead excuse for a vegetable with aging gnarly skin. Parsnips, my friends, are sui generis — a good companion (if not also an actual substitute) for carrots. But they are much more.

I was lucky enough to learn all about them decades ago from a man known to many on this Island as the farmers’ friend — the late Gus Schumacher, who introduced the Farmers’ Market concept to Massachusetts nearly 40 years ago when he was state’s Agricultural Commissioner. He also was the man who connected local restaurateurs to local growers, a tireless pioneer in the farm-to-table movement.

Gus grew up in Lexington on his father’s farm — one of the largest growers of parsnips in New England. In the summer, the Schumacher family would vacation in Falmouth Heights on the Cape. My wife’s family summered nearby. The Lyonses and Schumachers got to be fast friends. In the off-season, Paula visited Gus at the family farm in Lexington.

Soon after Paula and I married, Gus was invited to dinner. Instead of the usual wine or flowers as a host/hostess gift, he brought a bouquet of parsnips. Yes, it was kind of a gag, but it was also a soft sell. At that time I had never cooked or even met a parsnip. Ever since, I’ve been hooked.

From Gus I learned about the versatility, virtues and curriculum vitae of this root vegetable. It’s a biennial plant usually grown as an annual. Like the carrot, the parsnip, grown in the northern United States and southern Canada, is native to Europe and Asia. Left in the ground to mature, its flavor turns sweeter as the winter turns frostier. It contains Vitamins C and K, iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, antioxidants and fiber. It’s a poster child for a healthy lifestyle.

They can be prepared any which way, once they’ve been peeled. They give off a pleasant texture and aroma, valued by the French. They cook quickly, faster than carrots or potatoes, whether boiled, broiled, roasted, fried or just sautéed. In fact, if you aren’t paying attention, they can turn to gruel. You can cook them in water, chicken stock, olive oil, butter or duck fat. You can serve them as chunks, chips, spears or puree. They can be the essence of a soup, pudding, cake or fritters. There’s even a recipe for parsnip wine. I’ll spare you those quirky details and leave the Googling to you.

In the history of French cuisine, a parsnip is not only a vegetable but also seen as a condiment. When I was in the business of radio and television, sometimes layers of applause and laughter would be added to “sweeten” the soundtrack, to pump up the audience at home. For generations, something similar has been going on in French kitchens. In the form of paste or puree, parsnips have been sweetening stews and sauces. It’s the same thinking behind Italian chefs adding diced carrots to meaty ragu sauces.

A great puree can be made by cutting up a couple of parsnips and cooking the chunks in chicken stock. After a few minutes, when soft, pour them into a blender, add a dash of dill, a few drops of cream or teaspoons of plain yogurt, and puree. Reheated, it’s great as a bed under just about anything, but mainly seared sea scallops.

Parsnips starred on menus over 2,000 years ago at Roman banquets. The root vegetable was so highly esteemed that the Emperor Tiberius accepted part of the tribute payable to Rome by Germany in the form of parsnips. In those heady days of ancient empire, it seems parsnips were considered an aphrodisiac. But, you know something, I’m beginning to think the Romans thought that about nearly everything they digested.

Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.