Return to Your RutesDec 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Karey Solomon
On a slow winter’s day at the Ithaca Farmer’s Market in 1997, bored vendors began hurling unsold frozen chickens into the empty aisles. Baked goods and produce followed. Things became competitive, particularly when it was discovered rutabagas had the best bounce and velocity. Who knew?
So, each year thereafter, on the market’s season-closing Saturday, the market floor is marked with a target, drawn by whichever enterprising volunteers are around when chalk is distributed. And at high noon, the International Rutabaga Curling Championship begins. Celebrated with coverage on National Public Radio’s “Only a Game” and “Prairie Home Companion,” and even a mention in National Geographic, it now regularly attracts a sizable crowd of spectators and contestants of all ages. There are referees, generally wearing regulation black-and-white-striped shirts—unless they’ve been recruited at the last minute—armed with measuring tapes, plus an emcee, Jeff Luomo. There’s even a rutabaga god, farmer Michael Klos, who descends from Mount Cruciferous carrying a torch with which to begin the proceedings. He’s accompanied by a parade of often-costumed contestants.
Jeff previously appeared in the competition as a protestor advocating for vegetable rights—“Because what’s Ithaca without a protest?” he asks—and later costumed as a pun-spouting, well-rounded rutabaga. After that, he was tapped to be the announcer. This varied experience leads him to conclude costumes are an excellent idea for their added layers of warmth. Each year there’s an appearance by Rutabaga Ginsburg, sporting a lace collar and, these days, surmounted by a halo. Sometimes the Nor’Easter Bunny appears. Jeff speaks admiringly of one contestant who appears as Chew-baga, wearing a toasty, shaggy coat. “Brilliant idea,” he notes.
Costumed or not, contestants pay five bucks each to enter and receive a rutabaga (the entry fee supports the competition). Each has the option of carving their personal vegetable to a shape they hope will help it win. Hay bales mark the course boundaries. The Rutabaga Choir also assembles, with great seriousness and a conductor, to perform a harmonious rendition of “Rutabaga!” to the melody of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Next on the agenda is the kids’ Turnip Toss, for children eight and under. “We had to,” Jeff explains, because the kids were winning everything and we had to have something for the adults to win.” Then the grownups take their turn. In both competitions, veggies that overshoot the goal are deemed “OOT” by the referees, who carefully measure the distance between the target and the ones closest to it, all under the watchful eyes of the crowd. There’s trash talk to undermine one’s opponents, a lot of audience participation, and much cheering. When the winners are determined, they assemble, Olympic-style, to be awarded much-coveted medals crafted by artist and vendor Christi Sobel. The turnips and rutabagas go home with their purchasers or whoever else wants them, to achieve a second life in soup, mash, hash browns, or roasted winter roots. Jeff always hopes a few will be left behind for him.
There are not many vendors who grow rutabagas, and Jeff, discouraging enquiry, reports they are mostly grown in an undisclosed location near Trumansburg. However, diligent research led to the discovery of a vast rutabaga patch at Six Circles Farm in Lodi, where farmers Jacob and Lael Eisman tend an expanse of root vegetables enjoying a panoramic view of Seneca Lake most tourists would kill for.
“They’re a little on the small side this year,” Lael says regretfully. He pulls a few, a little money exchanges hands, and in the interests of reportorial research, a few rutabagas return home for culinary experimentation. They are un-fragrant passengers, reminiscent of a person who has recently consumed too many eggs. The strong waft from the back seat reminds the driver, trying to breathe through her mouth, of their turnip/cabbage lineage.
The Rutabaga Curl has been much celebrated. There’s an entertaining song about it by local singer-songwriter Joe Crookston that can be heard on YouTube. But there’s not much excitement about the vegetable itself. Some, including Jeff and Lael and various nutritionists, claim the rutabaga is a delicious, healthy, and fortifying foodstuff whose micronutrients, abundant fiber, and low carbohydrate content make it a worthy component of more meals than it regularly appears in. Historically, they seem most appreciated in times of famine, i.e., when choices have narrowed between rutabagas and gnawing tree bark. When last tasted by this reporter, at a hippie meal where mashed rutabagas were served, the consistency and flavors were unforgettably awful, reminiscent of pungent sawdust served with a little butter.
“You mean you haven’t eaten rutabagas in almost fifty years?” Lael asks incredulously, this being more years than he’s been on the planet. “Try them oven-roasted with oil or butter and salt and pepper.” He pauses to consider. “Sometimes you have to oven roast them for a long time.”
The experimental rutabaga was sliced and pan-roasted—chef-speak for “This probably isn’t worth turning on the oven for”—over medium heat in olive oil. Though a cool day, doors and windows were opened to air out the rutabaga perfume. While they simmered in hot oil, a pause to clean the cat box allowed the stench of ammonia to act as an olfactory palate cleanser. Could the remaining rutabagas be surreptitiously gifted to an unknown neighbor some miles down the road?
But—surprise! The rutabaga chips are transformed by cooking. When lifted from the pan they were crisp on the outside, tender, even slightly sweet inside. These were drained on paper towels and salted. Jeff suggests eating them with salt and pepper; Lael favors curry aioli, which can be translated from chef-speak to “mayonnaise with curry powder.” However, the lion’s share of the first two batches mysteriously disappeared before a pepper shaker could be lifted. In short, they were delicious. Perhaps there’s something to the rutabaga mystique after all? Good thing they hadn’t yet departed for an alternate destination.
This year’s competition begins December 16, at noon, at the Ithaca Farmer’s Market at Steamboat Landing. Come earlier if you aim to compete. Get extra rutabagas to take home. Learn more and see highlights of previous competitions at the International Rutabaga Curling Championship Facebook page.