“I think Pa had a blacksmith make this tool. Can you guess what it’s for?” my father asked me. He was giving his five-year-old son an educational tour of Grandpa Rang’s barn.
The tool he was showing me had a flat steel blade with a slightly curved cutting edge mounted on a long wooden handle like a shovel. I ventured a guess, “A barn scraper?”
“Nope,” said Dad, “it’s a rutabaga chopper. Pa planted rutabagas every year to feed to the cows in the winter. They loved ‘em, but we had to chop ‘em first. We used to have a box to chop ‘em in.”
That was the first time I had heard that cows ate things like we did. Mom put “beggies,” which is what most people called rutabagas when I was a kid, in soup and mashed them with butter sometimes. They had a sweet but strong taste and were not my favorite food.
Rutabagas have about the same sugar content as carrots, so that may help explain why grandpa’s dairy cows liked rutabagas. After a main course of dried grass, a few mouthfuls of moist sweet rutabaga probably tasted like dessert.
Dairy farmers today don’t generally plant rutabagas to feed their cows, but this relative of cabbages and turnips is becoming more popular as a food to include on the family menu. Gourmet chefs have got into the act and offer rutabaga purées, glazed roasted rutabaga and rutabaga salads with various flavors of vinaigrette dressing—all I am sure at premium prices.
Cumberland, Wisconsin, celebrates the root every summer with a three-day festival of fun and food including bratwurst made with rutabagas by award-winning sausage maker, Louie’s Finer Meats. Before you turn up your nose at one, try a perfectly cooked rutabaga brat at the Louie’s food stand manned by local volunteers during the festival. Like me, you may decide that those “beggie brats” are pretty good.
As I grew up I learned to appreciate the rutabaga. It adds a rich flavor to soups or stews and it’s an essential ingredient of genuine pasties. It is also delicious simply diced and steamed with butter, salt and pepper. Here is how to prepare this simple side dish.
1 medium rutabaga (4 to 5 inches in diameter)
4 T butter
3/4 tsp. salt, divided
Dash of freshly ground black pepper
Peel and chop the rutabaga into a half-inch dice. You should have three to four cups of diced rutabaga. Put it into a three quart saucepan with a half teaspoon of salt and just enough water to cover the vegetable. Bring the pan to a boil and simmer the rutabaga for twenty to twenty-five minutes or until fork tender.
Drain the rutabaga, then add the butter cut into teaspoon-sized pieces along with a quarter teaspoon of salt and the pepper. Stir to coat the rutabaga, taste and adjust the seasoning.
Rutabaga is especially good with beef or pork.