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We Are All Rutabagas: Finding Inspiration from A Root Vegetable 

Do you know what a rutabaga is? You likely don’t. It doesn’t have the pizzazz of controversy like brussel sprouts or kale, but isn’t widely adored, either, like the green bean or cauliflower (do people like those?).

If you don’t enjoy a good rutabaga, or don’t even know what a rutabaga is, I welcome you. I want to raise awareness of an issue gripping our nation by its roots: rutabaga underappreciation. Like you, I was in the dark until a few months ago, when I realized the value of this incredible vegetable. If you click on this link, you’ll see a clip of the video my mom took of me, crying on the kitchen floor because of an article I had read in the New Yorker about the rutabaga (the actual video is 2 and a half minutes; you get the least embarrassing part). This just to show I am very, very passionate about the woes of the rutabaga. IMG_2535 (1)

The rutabaga’s praises have gone unsung for too long. Here, I will convince you not only of the perseverance and strength of this hardy, lovable vegetable but also why it should be the mascot of the COVID-19 quarantine. 

First, however, let’s clear up exactly what the rutabaga is. On page 146 of Jane Brody’s Good Food Book, I found this description of the veg at hand: “Even though it is a relative of the turnip and often confused with it, the rutabaga is a different plant, a yellow-fleshed edible root of the popular Italian vegetable broccoli di rape. Rutabagas are a good source of potassium, vitamin A, and niacin, and they contain a fair amount of calcium. There are 60 calories in a cup of cooked cubes.”

Let’s unpack a few things. First, I love the description of a “fair” amount of calcium. What’s a “good” or “exceptional” amount of calcium? And secondly, what exactly is a cube? Is this a known measurement? I think they just used it because they were drawn to the “c” alliteration of “calories,” “cup,” “cooked,” and “cubes.” For average people, the rutabaga looks like a classic root vegetable, an ugly cross between a turnip and a potato. 

That’s just the description, however. To begin to understand this vegetable, we must first get to know its roots. Known alternatively as the  “Swedish turnip,” “Lapland turnip,” or the “snagger,” the rutabaga is produced by crossing a turnip with a cabbage. As the wonderfully-titled New Yorker article, “What Rutabaga Does Better Than Anything Else,” puts it, “Somewhere, in the misty meadows of Central Europe, a turnip got frisky with a cabbage, and the rutabaga was born.”

According to this article, the rutabaga has been around “at least since ancient-Roman times, when the naturalist Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century, described an edible root ‘between a radish and a rape’—meaning the plant from which rapeseed oil derives, which is a cultivar of the same species.”

Later, Gaspard Bauhin, a Swiss botanist, wrote in his 1596 book, Phytophinax, that he had observed the rutabaga growing wild in Sweden. There, in fact, is where the veggie got its lovely name.“Rutabaga,” came from the Swede’s “Rotabagge,” from “rot,” meaning “root,” and “badge,” meaning “lump” or “bunch.” Essentially they decided to pick the name “root lump.”

I also command-F’ed my way through the 686-page Sturtevant’s Notes on Edible Plants, Part 2. Published in 1919, this 686-page read is perhaps the dullest piece of literature I have ever parsed. Luckily, “most dull” is where rutabaga facts truly shine. It reveals that the rutabaga was introduced into Scotland in 1781-2, and in 1817 there is a record of an acre of rutabaga growing in Illinois. At last, the humble rutabaga reached the Land of the Free. 

Why, however, should we care about its history? Helen Rosner, the author of the article I mentioned earlier, describes the rutabaga as a “less-loved, less-cool” vegetable. The second two sentences of her article are what brought me to tears on the kitchen floor in the first place: “carrots caramelize, artichokes hold a marinade, eggplants purée, [and] shallots frizzle to a crisp. The rutabaga, however, is creamy enough to be made into a mash, but it’s no potato; it’s mild enough to be sliced paper-thin with a mandoline or vegetable peeler and eaten raw, but it’s no jicama; it makes a zingy, crisp pickle, but it’s no turnip.” She, like many American shoppers, struggled to find its “exceptionality,” and justify buying it over, say, your average Joe turnip.

I was crying because I so often felt like a rutabaga. For so long, I have felt that there are some things I can do, but nothing I was particularly good at. For some it’s dancing, or singing, or soccer, playing the violin. I had been struggling for years to be proud of myself the way I had seen friends of mine be proud of their accomplishments. I, too, was struggling to find my “exceptionality.” 

Also, of course, I read this article in the midst of college decisions,  directly after a series of rejections. I was truly feeling like a rutabaga. 

Moreover, the tired, crazy side of me felt something unexpected — sympathy for the rutabaga itself. What a sorry thing is any root vegetable, not to mention the forgotten love-child of two already sub-par vegetables. 

Another piece of literature that made me sad was the book Sam the Man & the Rutabaga Plan, by Frances O’Roark Dowell. I read all seventeen pages provided in the preview to the ebook, and may I just say, this book is an emotional rollercoaster. For example, the title of chapter 3 is “Or are you a turnip.” From what I could tell, it followed Sam the Man, who appears to be in elementary school. He had a dental appointment while his science class did a project on vegetables. Because of his absence, he got the last pick of vegetable, the rutabaga. His mother literally says: “Sorry Sam, you’re stuck with the rutabaga.”

Even more depressing is Sam the Man’s initial perspective on rutabagas (we’ll never know if his view changed since pages 20-135 were not shown in the preview). The book reads, “Even if some vegetables did have a point of view, like maybe carrots or peas, [Sam the Man] was positive that rutabagas didn’t.” How sad is that? Don’t you just want to give the rutabaga a hug?

My personal favorite line comes in the form of a question from Sam the Man to his neighbor, Mr. Stockfish. He asks, “so, it lives in the dark until somebody eats it? That’s its whole life?” I mean, good Lord, what a grim way to look at a vegetable that’s just trying its best. 

I’m here to set the record straight. First, I must relighten the spirit of the rutabaga, and second, I shall demonstrate its “exceptionality.” 

Let me assert something irrefutable: the rutabaga is tough. You hold one in your hand and you think, yeah, this could last a few years. It’s significantly uglier than the turnip, but it’s got the colorful bruise-looking skin of a wrestler. And it should. It is a strong vegetable. It was considered a “food of last resort” in Germany and France during both World Wars. When all the other food ran out, the rutabaga was there, fighting. 

The most interesting source I found for this article was a book called Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust. It was written by an anonymous young girl from the Łódź Ghetto in German-occupied Poland. It is, essentially, a food diary of someone starving in war-torn Europe. 

For example, in an entry from Wednesday, March 11, 1942, she writes: “I was reading the announcements with a pounding heart, because two weeks of keeping ourselves alive depend on this ration.” Among a small amount of rye flour, peas, sugar, margarine, honey, coffee, and pickled beets, she recorded 10 decagrams of rutabaga. Seven days later on March 18, 1942, she describes a rumor of a vegetable ration. They gave her only two loaves of bread, one kilogram of carrots and two kilograms of rutabaga. “It’s not fair,” she writes. “A family of one person gets the same amount of rutabagas. Mine was quite nice.”

An undated entry describes her father coming home with two co-workers, putting two rutabagas on the table and dividing each of them into three. The rutabagas had been swiped from the kitchen, but other scraps had been given to her father by the women working there. “He knew that there was nothing to eat at home, so he didn’t eat [the rutabagas] on the spot although he was very hungry.” She ends the entry by saying, “I can’t write anymore, because my eyes are filled with tears.”

I assume that no one at CPS is experiencing that level of hardship. But quarantine is hard for all of us, in its own way. The rutabaga, more than anything else, should remind us of perseverance through struggle.

Around a month and a half ago, my mom bought me a rutabaga, mostly as a gag gift. Precisely because of the rutabaga’s underappreciation, the shelves were (and, I assume, still are) stocked with the veggies. If you can’t find eggs, buy yourself a rutabaga.

When I asked my mom about the gift, she told me “I just felt like you were so distraught… you said you felt like a rutabaga, and I just thought it would be funny to get you a rutabaga. I honestly did not know what a rutabaga looked like. And I felt triumphant when I found it.” 

I was elated. Then, to be honest, I forgot about it. A month and a half later I pulled my rutabaga out of the fridge where it had been living, and began to craft my recipe, a la Food Network. I peeled the rutabaga, tossed it with salt, pepper, olive oil, rosemary, and something labeled “taco seasoning,” and roasted it for around 30 minutes. Then I took it out, sprinkled some apple cider vinegar and green onions, and I had my meal. 

All in all, it was kind of weird. If you like sweet potatoes or cooked carrots, this is for you. The texture, I’d argue, is much better than either–it has a little bit of crunch to it. Is it my favorite food, hands down? No. Is it my least favorite? No. None of that matters. Instead, while you snack on rutabaga, you should appreciate the history of the vegetable, the uses, the incredibly long lifespan, and realize that even though you, too, may be searching for your “exceptionality,” I promise you that just like the rutabaga, you have so much to offer. 

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