The Care and Feeding of Rutabagas
Rutabagas don’t get very good media coverage. They are seen as dull-tasting and dull-witted and not to be tolerated on the sophisticated tables of the upwardly mobile. The true gourmet sees it as a peasant food best served with boiled mutton. Or, even better, not served at all.
From Whence Commeth the Rutabaga?
Apparently, at some point in the 17th century, the wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) and the turnip (Brassica rapa) got jiggy somewhere in Bohemia. One suspects the presence of large quantities of slivovitz, because the result of this happy union was the rutabaga.
The origin is not reflected in the many other names the rutabaga answers to: Canadian turnip, yellow turnip, Russian turnip, winter turnip, but, strangely not the Bohemian turnip. Perhaps, the coupling of two vegetables has been deemed a bit damaging to the image of Bohemia and the citizens have thrown a blanket of secrecy over the entire sordid business. Perhaps, those Moravian veggies might get up to cross-species shenanigans but not Bohemians.
Early on, farmers noticed that rutabagas made excellent feed for cattle; it’s a pity humans didn’t just leave it at that.
The rutabaga is a simple critter; it requires only soil, water, and a bit of compost. It thrives in cool weather. It probably responds well to being spoken to softly. And, a tune wouldn’t go amiss. The veggies might be homesick for (adopt central European accent) “Old Country” so a suitable melody might be Bohemian Rhapsody.
Singing and talking to veggies are, perhaps, best done under cover of darkness. You know. Neighbours. Men in white coats.
Rutabagas, as with certain writers, need frequent liquid refreshment. Writers like to be hydrated by the application of fermented malt beverages, rutabagas prefer water. Deep research reveals there is an old adage that applies “If in doubt, water.”
Some creepy crawlies seem to like the leaves of the plant; the list, according to bonnieplants.com includes “slugs, aphids, cutworms, looper caterpillars, and flea beetles.” Hand-to-bug combat will get rid of these pests; if you are squeamish about squishing wear gloves.
However, these beasties won’t affect the business end of the rutabaga, which is partly underground. So, watch out for clubroot. Sounds horrible and can stay in the soil for 20 years. It seems clubroot is a formidable enemy. It’s probably best to employ a dignified retreat and plant painted-leaf begonias instead.
Bonnieplants also adds that “It’s also a good idea to provide rutabaga plants with a steady source of nutrition throughout the growing season.” Well-rotted manure can’t be beaten; “I love the smell of cow poo in the morning.”
Uses for Rutabagas
The first thing that comes to mind is doorstop. You might want to shave a bit off one side or the thing might roll away and damage Granny’s swollen and compression-encased ankles.
Nine-pin bowling seems a useful application. Of course, you’ll need finger and thumb holes; I’m going to suggest fifteen-sixteenths of an inch in size. This is where we come into contact with Taylor’s Fix-it Law (TFL).
Simply stated, TFL postulates that no matter what the project you do not own the correct tool to complete it.
The corollary to TFL states that neither does the hardware store.
The commentary to TFL says Taylor is an optimist.
It’s also possible, but not advisable, for people to use rutabagas as a food source.
From Field to Table
Rutabaga, or swede as it’s known in Britain, was a standard menu item at the school the writer attended.
It was the 1950s, when British cooking (it never achieved the status of cuisine) involved boiling everything into submission and, when it had given up all its nutrition to the water, to boil it for a couple of hours more. If this is done to swede, and it was so done at least three times a week, it gives off an acrid pungency that catches at the back of the throat. The flavour was abominable.
However, the fibre was intended to keep us regular based on the theory that a boy with healthy bowels is a boy with a healthy mind; an assertion that is not supported by the medical literature.
The Smithsonian Magazine offers “Five Ways to Eat Rutabaga.” Only five? The less authoritative Food Facts comes up with “rutabagas can be roasted, sautéed, baked, fried, boiled, mashed, and added to soups and stews. They also can be eaten raw as a snack or grated into salads or coleslaw.”
Cleverly, Americans have mostly avoided the root vegetable; on average they consume about one pound each a year, which seems a bit excessive.
Rutabagas are a good source of thiamine, vitamin A, vitamin B6, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and potassium. But, who cares? You’re not going to eat one.
The ketogenic diet seems to be a current fad. Keto fans go heavy on fat and low on carbohydrates. The lowly rutabaga plays a part in this. Even though it looks as though it should pack as much carb as a plate of pasta it doesn’t.
So, let’s check in with ketogasm.com, a website that proclaims “Keto for Badass Babestm.” Oh Dear. The enthusiastic Tasha Metcalf gushes that “When cooked … the rutabaga develops a savory, nutty, yet slightly sweet flavour … Rutabagas are low in calories, jam packed with vitamin C and have a total of seven net carbs per 100 grams. Not too shabby!”
To which the only reasonable response is “Pfft.” And, I mean it.
Some people are more susceptible to bitter flavours than others. Current Biology tells us with impressive clarity that “Among cruciferous vegetables the ratios of bitterness ratings between homozygous PAV and AVI subjects were greatest for rutabaga and turnip, and smallest for cabbage, which suggests that rutabaga and turnip contain the most specific ligands for the PAV-hTAS2R38 receptor.” Got it?
The townsfolk of Cumberland, Wisconsin have an annual Rutabaga Festival. The 2018 version featured several bands, a hockey tournament, tractor pulls, bean bag contest, hot pepper eating competition, the Cumberland Wrestling Association pancake breakfast, a charity run, and some theatre. Almost entirely absent from the festivities was anything to do with rutabagas. Hmm.
The Irish developed a sensible use for rutabagas. Hollowed out, they were used as Jack-O-Lanterns on Halloween. Come November 1st they could be fed to the pigs.
Dedicated to Fatfreddyscat who inspired this piece.
- “Growing Rutabagas.” Bonnieplants.com, undated.
- “Five Ways to Eat Rutabaga.” Lisa Bramen, Smithsonian Magazine, December 3, 2009.
- “How to Cook Rutabaga.” Food Facts, November 9, 2016.
- “Getting to the Root of Things. The Rutabaga: Its History, Uses, and Culture.” Melody Rose, Dave’s Garden, November 9, 2009.
- “Rutabaga – Low Carb Vegetable Spotlight.” Tasha Metcalf, ketogasm,com, undated.
- “Variability in a Taste-Receptor Gene Determines Whether We Taste Toxins in Food.” Mari A. Sandell and Paul A.S. Breslin, Current Biology, September 19, 2006.
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© 2018 Rupert Taylor