Gardens of the Cross Timbers: The Swede in the Sack

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Early May Sunset

The Multi-County Master Gardeners welcome one and all to their plant sale today from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the OSU Extension Center, 14001 Acme Road in Shawnee. You may find some hold-overs from last year’s cancelled event, plus many new plants. Everything and everybody are outdoors in the fresh air!

“I lost my rutabaga. I’m sure it will turnip somewhere.”

If SunBasket had only called the overgrown turnip a Swede (SunBasket is an organic meal delivery service). I was familiar with the swede or Swedish turnip when we lived in England. The Scots referred to it as the neep. The recipe card stated it was a rutabaga. Actually, the rutabaga has dozens of names depending on the locality.

When the Harry Potter Mandrake look-alike was pulled out of the sack, everyone took a step back. The turnip for the salad was unavailable and the substitute was this gigantic rutabaga. The gnarly root veggie is a hybrid between a cabbage and a turnip in the same mustard/cabbage family along with cauliflower, radish, and horseradish. Officially named Brassica napus, the genus name is ‘Brassica,’ but ‘napus’ comes from ancient Greek for mustard, the source for the Scottish neep.

The rutabaga was found growing wild in Sweden in the early 1600s. The overgrown turnip probably originated in northern Europe or Russia and had been selectively bred time and again in those areas. First showing up in the UK in the 1700s, the rutabaga came to the U.S. in the early 1800s. Not exactly the veggie of choice for some Germans and French. The rutabaga was one of the cheap and accessible foods during World War I and II and was associated with food shortages and famines.

The Swede

The Finnish are great fans of rutabaga. The root appears in casseroles, lunches, oven baked or raw, in stews, salads or as alternatives to potato chips. In Sweden, Norway, Scotland and Wales, rutabagas are boiled and mashed, often with potatoes. It is one of the four vital ingredients in a traditional Cornish pasty. Naturally you know what a Welsh Cornish pasty is.

An authentic Cornish pasty has a shortbread pastry surrounding a filling of sliced potato, rutabaga, onion and chopped meat in a rich gravy. The circle of pastry was folded with the thick edge held together with precisely 20 crimps.

The Cornish pasty was taken into Cornish tin mines by workers and eaten for lunch. Legend had it a good pasty could remain intact if dropped down a mine shaft! Underground, the sturdy crimped edge of the meat pies could be held by dirty hands while the meat filling remained clean. Important since arsenic was a frequent companion in tin ore. Nothing is cooked before being sealed in the pasty. When baked in the morning, the pasty would stay warm 8 to 10 hours. It also warmed the miner if kept close to his body. The pastry edge was marked with the miner’s initials so the pasties could be distinguished from each other during the afternoon break.

The initials served another function. Little people lived underground. The ‘Knockers’ were little sprites who became quite mischievous if not left a little food. The initials were a way to let the fairies know who were their friends. (Loosely translated from ‘The Cornish Pasty’ by Ben Johnson, Historic UK).

Since 2011, the Cornish pasty has had Protected Geographical Protection status in Europe. The Cornish pasty must be prepared in Cornwall, not necessarily baked. Similar to champagne must come from the Champagne region of France. We’re not so specific here in the USA. Almost authentic Cornish pasties can be purchased at the Cornish Pasty Shop in Scottsdale, Arizona. California sparkling wine can be called champagne if the producer was using that name before 2005.

The rutabaga may turn into a jack-o’-lantern in Ireland and Scotland on All Hallows’ Eve. The root is hollowed out, contorted images are carved on the outside and, as a final touch, a candle is put inside to be lit after dark. Not having an abundance of rutabagas, we in the U.S. improvised with even larger sculpted pumpkins.

The rutabaga is the fourth heaviest veggie in the world. The record U.S. holder weighed 77.8 pounds grown by Scott Robb of Palmer, Alaska in 2009. In 2011, Ian Neale from Newport, Gwent, in Wales, raised an 85 pound ‘swede.’ The world’s largest so far. Seems plausible as the climate warms, rutabagas will soon be cultivated in the Arctic region.

Rutabagas, corn, sweet potatoes, lima beans and bamboo shoots do produce cyanide our bodies process into thiocyanate which can interfere with iodine uptake in the thyroid. There have been no real reports of problems if normal amounts of these veggies are eaten. Except limas. No one should have to eat lima beans.

Rutabagas don’t like heat, but can be grown in Oklahoma. Deep, fertile, well-drained slightly acidic soil works for seed which should be planted three months before the first heavy frost. Or you can wait up to three years to sow rutabaga seeds. They stay alive that long. Keep the water coming since rutabagas love moisture. So, by my calculations the seeds need to be planted late July or early August. Our hottest and driest months. This veggie matures best in cooler fall temps which could possibly happen in Oklahoma. The rutabaga requires an additional four weeks of growth beyond harvest time for the turnip. Like turnips, if things get too hot and dry, the rutabagas get woody and bitter. Not to worry. The smooth leaves will still be quite edible. Add a little bacon fat when cooking. If your rutabaga crop is successful, the roots can be stored six months.

The rutabaga in the recipe was sliced, baked until tender, mixed in a salad of chopped kale and sliced oranges before being doused with a vinegar dressing. The big turnip had a mild, slightly sweet flavor and potato-like texture. Quite tasty.

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at