Tuesday, December 2, 2014


For some reason, this word came up on an episode of New Tricks, the British mystery series about old codgers solving old cases. I associate the word with the upper American Midwest, so this was somewhat surprising. I also associate it with the children's book Rootabaga Stories, by Carl Sandberg, which I either never read or was so unimpressed with that it has left no record upon my consciousness. It's quite possible that I would like it a lot more now, as the nostalgia factor of its content would mean more. Maybe.

I know that most people who happen upon this blog will already know what a rutabaga is, but it isn't something that seems to have made its way into the California cuisine that I grew up with with any frequency. Or at all, really.

I do know it is some kind of root vegetable, but how people use it is pretty much a mystery to me. Time to find out more.


Well, as pretty much every website I looked at seems to agree, the rutabaga is a cross between a turnip and a cabbage. Some  say that this cross was done intentionally by a Swiss botanist named Gaspard (Caspar) Bauhin, while others think he was merely the one to describe it. Wikipedia doesn't connect him to the rutabaga, but it does say that his principal contribution to science was in his description of genera and species.

I also learned in passing of the mysterious sounding "triangle of U". It turns out that this is simply a theory about how three ancient plants from the brassica (cabbage) family evolved and combined to make some common modern vegetable and seed plants. It was named after the guy who thought of it, a Korean-Japanese botanist named Woo Jang-choon, whose name translated into Japanese through its characters became U Nagaharu. Here's a picture of the triangle:

But essentially it's all about the relation and ancestry of things like turnips, cabbage, mustard and yes, rutabaga.

Rutabaga, it turns out, is a lot like a turnip, except its flesh is yellow,  not white, and it isn't quite as moist.It is popular in the northern climes of the U.S., but in fact a lot of it is grown in California. Its name comes from a Swedish dialect, rot meaning root and bagge meaning bag. However, as with much else about this plant, there are other versions. Wikipedia, for instance, tells us that the etymology from Swedish actually means 'ram's root', possibly because it is used commonly as livestock feed. It goes by a lot of names, but we'll just stick to the English language versions. Americans and Canadians may be familiar with rutabaga, but many English speaking people just call them swedes. The Scots have their own name for them, calling them neeps or tumshies, and the southeastern part of the region calls them bagies. They even use them in their traditional Burns Supper, in celebration of the life of the poet Robert Burns, where they play their part in the menu of haggis, tatties and neeps.

Popular in the cuisine of several cultures, rutabaga under any name is apparently not held in high esteem in France or Germany, and is thought of as more or less fodder for animals. Several sources say that this is because it was the only food available to people enduring great privation during the First and Second World Wars and bears unpleasant associations for many. However those wars are a long time ago now, and maybe it's time for this very versatile root to make a comeback.

The illustration that begins this piece is from the original frontispiece to the 1922 first edition of Rootabaga Tales. The artists are Maud and Miska Petersham. Project Gutenberg has a copy of the book free to peruse online. I think that whether or not you like Sandberg's tales is largely a matter of taste, or so I gather from the mixed reviews of the book on GoodReads, but in any case, you should take a moment to skim it for the wonderful illustrations.

Here's a link to info about the rutabaga drawing which comes from France in 1883. The humble root bag was not so despised back then, I think.


  1. I did not like Rootabaga Stories as a kid, but I will go back and look at the Petersham's illustrations. Rutabagas are part of a Christmas tradition in our family. My dad hated the smell of cooking rutabagas during the Great Depression. As there was no money for gifts, his family wrapped up lots of joke items. Every year someone gave Dad a nicely wrapped rutabaga for Christmas. We continued that tradition into the 1960s. Dad never let Mom cook the smelly rutabaga, though.

  2. Smelly may explain a lot about the future aversion by all those wartime people as well, smell being such a strong memory trigger. I'm surprised that no one mentioned this in the course of my internet wanderings.

    I like that rutabaga gift tradition.

  3. I will certainly look up some of the information to which you link, if only because I have always loved the sound of "rutabaga." I don't know where I first heard the word; it sounds like the sort of thing I may first have encountered in a Warner Bros. cartoon.

  4. Good to know that it isn't just me for whom the word was more an interesting sound than anything attached to a real object.

  5. Oh, so much to love here! Root bag! Robert Burns! The triangle that explains everything! Your detailed account of it all! Thank you, thank you. (And of course I am delighted by the coincidence of a turnip at the end of my own blog post today. Stage coach, baby!)

  6. What's funny, Kathleen, is that I was so taken with the walnut painting and the mention of The Blue Flower over at your place that I somehow missed the turnip! Corrected now, of course.

  7. You might enjoy this concluding sentence to the author bio in Street Level, by Bob Truluck:

    "Truluck has no favorite color or lucky number and will eat most anything but rutabaga."

  8. Truluck was at Bouchercon, and I'd post a photo I took of him if I could figure out a way to attach photos to Blogger comments.

  9. Nice. His aversion seems to mirror many others. I just looked up his picture, but I don't think I came across Truluck during my Bouchercon wanderings.

  10. He's hard to miss. He was at the first Noircon, back in 2008, so I've known him since I started attending conventions.

    In re a rutabaga relative, you may have read my noting Chris Ewan's comment during a Bouchercon panel that he was surprised by the custom on the Isle of Man of carving turnips rather than pumpkins at Halloween.

  11. I do, now you mention it, and for all we know they were actually what we think of as rutabagas, the terminology being a little fast and loose around these relatives.

    As to Truluck, yes, I probably saw him, but I didn't attend any panel he was on.

  12. Seana

    Never had one in real life. My experience of them seems to have come from either Bugs Bunny or Hanna Barbara cartoons. I've always known that they really existed but some part of me has never really believed it.

    Now I have proof. Thank you.

  13. Well, it's all sort of virtual proof, isn't it. I can't testify to ever having seen one in the supermarket. I guess I'll have to look and see what I find in the supermarket. If successful, I now know what everyone's getting for Christmas this year.