Rutabaga

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It is a testimony to the power of our appetite for novelty that the lowly rutabaga (Brassica napus) has just now begun enjoying a moment in the glare of chic. In most of its lifespan, since it emerged spontaneously as a hybrid of two other Brassicas—turnips (B. rapa var. rapa) and cabbage (B. oleracea var. capitata)—growing near each other in medieval European gardens, the rutabaga, aka yellow turnip aka swede aka rape, has occupied the unenviable position of humblest vegetable of them all.

We’re concerned here with the unpopular, globular, galumphing, waxed root vegetable which, when peeled, cleavered into sections, and cooked in boiling water, will yield a perfectly agreeable yellow mash. Glamorous chefs are currently inventing clever new recipes for this maligned—and very cheap—vegetable. But the classic is the classic bashed neeps, a Scottish puree that has kept crofters north of the River Tweed warm against the winter chill. “Neeps” is their word for rutabaga (and white turnips), from the same root that gives turnips their second syllable: the Latin napus. As for “rutabaga, ” it’s of Swedish origin, actually from the dialect of West Götland: rotabagge, or root bag. The rutabaga itself came to England from Sweden, which must be why they call them swedes over there (lowercase and lower class).

The same species is of ever greater economic and nutritional importance as the source of rapeseed oil, that politically correct, low-cholesterol cooking oil marketed for obvious reasons as canola oil. Rape is the Olde English name for B. napus var. napus or var. oleifera.

Rutabaga has a modest literary history. Ogden Nash once wrote*:

We gobbled like pigs

On rutabagas and salted figs.

Although Nash must have meant the combination to be a comical and unappealing pair, rutabagas and figs do have a fundamental connection as plants that are high in calcium and therefore recommended for those in danger of osteoporosis, but not for people prone to passing calcium-based kidney stones.

Former children of my generation with book-worshiping mothers may have been subjected to Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories (1922), prairie fairy tales that are whimsical in intent, but leaden in effect.

*In Family Reunion (1950). Around this time, my wife’s uncle Phil was Nash’s tax accountant. Presumably he paid his bills by check, but he also bestowed autographed copies of his latest books on Uncle Phil, which contained little autograph poems appropriate for the occasion and their recipient. I am very fond of:

Philip Shan,

He knows where the money’s gone.

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