Rutabaga: An Uncommon Love Story

Reader Contribution by S.M.R. Saia
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It’s coming up on a year since I wrote about my ill-fated love affair with Hansel Eggplant. That was such a heady time – so fraught with emotion and crazy jealousies – so unpredictable and ultimately so disappointing, that I could barely work up the energy to idolize anyone this past year. Oh, I had one Listada DiGandia in the early summer, but I guess he didn’t like me, because he never called me back. The tomatoes showed up and they did their work, but they failed to inspire me the way those yellow and purple heirloom varieties had the year before. The potatoes were quite satisfactory, and fed us generously for almost a full five months. I think we developed a real affection for one another, but still, when it finally came time to say goodbye just before Thanksgiving, it was a lukewarm parting. The sweet potatoes started binge-eating as a result of my inattention, and by the time we were finally able to connect emotionally, they were not the tubers that I once knew, though they’re still hanging around, and we’re still really great friends. My tromboncino squash began the season both flirty and energetic; but soon started trying too hard and was, as it turned out, a little too clingy for my taste. I had no choice but to end that relationship early. Talk about your hostile breakups. I’ve still got pounds and pounds of severed body parts in my freezer!

My greatest relationship this past summer turned out to be not a romance of passionate intensity, but a simple friendship, complete with mutual understanding, trust and respect. The jalapeños – the real workhorses of my garden – were everything that I knew that they would be. I had three of them this year. None were as tall, as broad-shouldered, as robust, or as all-around gorgeous as jalapeño 2009, but what can I say. They delivered well into November before finally being taken out by our first frost. I pickled some this year and even those preserved peppers are fantastic. I’ll be sorry when they’re gone. I’ll be honest, if there’s anyone that I miss as we head into the winter, it’s jalapeño. I anxiously await his return. And I know that he’ll be back. Oh, Jalapeño – you’ve got a friend in me.

Over the past few years, I have to admit that Jalapeño has both turned my head and changed my mind about some meaning-of-life type things. I mean, what is love, anyway, if it’s not rooted in respect? Is passion possible without trust? And what good is an evening of romance if a vegetable isn’t there in the broad light of a summer day when you really need them? I’m through getting all googly eyed over celeriac seeds that don’t get past the spindly hair’s-breadth seedling stage. And I will never again try to grow a white pickling cucumber. Oh, they look so pert and glamorous on the seedling packet, but once I got them in my garden they moved so quickly through their pert and glamorous stage that all I really got were bloated spheres that turned yellow and bitter in the sun and that after awhile I didn’t even bother to pick. And don’t even get me started on muskmelons that start out as robust and sturdy little plants only to find out mid-summer that they just can’t go the distance. Not a one of them put out fruit any bigger than the size of my fist, and even that started to rot more often than not before I even knew that it was there.

About the failures of all three distinct varieties of winter squash – gulp – I cannot even bear to speak.

All of which is to say that I’ve had my fun in the garden over the past three years, but I can see now that it was all only leading up to the moment, recently, when rutabaga took center stage in my life.

Actually we’ve known one another for a couple of years, but I never thought that I could get so attached to that shapeless, purplish body and that sturdy spray of greens. So he comes out of the ground needing something like a shave. So what? He may not get as much admiration or as much press as broccoli. He hasn’t jumped onto cabbage’s lactofermentation bandwagon (though he certainly could). He’s every bit as reliable and as imperturbable as the turnip, but he’s more mild-mannered. Turnip’s acerbic wit quickly overpowers just about any gathering. But rutabaga is mellow. He can walk into any casserole and not offend anybody. He can hold his own with any roasted root, and he really dresses up the mashed potatoes. Even my daughter enjoys rutabaga, though she doesn’t know it. He thickens up her homemade mac & cheese sauce and helps me to sneak a little extra nutrition past the vegetable embargo that is her dinner plate.

Ah … rutabaga. Of course. How could I not have seen this coming? He’s the male friend that your dad already likes, the one that has a truck and is always willing to come help you move a piano. He’s the one whose shoulder you cry on in December when Hansel has made it quite clear that you will not be spending New Year’s Eve with him. He’s the one that you never even consider for a boyfriend … and yet at some point it occurs to you, that maybe you should.

Solid – that’s what rutabaga is. Strong, and patient and always there for you, just waiting for you to realize not only what it is that you really want – but what it is you really need. He shows up when the fall lettuce bolts, and the chard freezes and the cabbage blows you off for the excitement of a moth’s fluttering white wings. While you’re standing around fingering the droopy, frozen broccoli leaves and complaining that this weather isn’t frost, it’s well below freezing, for goodness sake, and it’s barely even December! Rutabaga is there just waiting for you to notice that he’s shown up. He’s done what was required of him, without weeding, or fertilizer, or cold frames. And when you finally do push back those frilly green stalks and notice that once again rutabaga has come through, well, something just kind of happens. For the first time in the years since you’ve known him, you really see him. He’s just waiting for you to be ready for grown-up love, the kind that not only shoulders responsibility equally but values his work; not just because it’s work worth doing, but because he’s doing it with you.


What a hunk.

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