“I love rutabaga,” said Gary inconceivably.
—The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
The Root Vegetable of Revenge
Rutabaga isn’t especially well known in the U.S. I had never encountered it before my first Thanksgiving with Brian’s family, who eat it mashed with a little butter and salt, just like potato. The flesh is pale orange and especially when it’s cooked, you wouldn’t be wrong to describe the color as “golden.” The flavor is mostly potato-ish but slightly sweet and a little sharp—about what you’d expect from a cross between a cabbage and a turnip. Like most root vegetables, they’re large and inexpensive and nutrient-dense and can be stored for months at cool temperatures. Also, if you happen to be in Ithaca on the last day of the farmer’s market in the fall, you can you can use them as stones for curling:
So I really didn’t understand why they weren’t more popular until I read The Corrections.
The novel centers around a middle-class, middle-America, suburban family with an inflexible, distant father named Albert and gratingly chirpy, long-suffering mother named Enid. At one point, Albert leaves for an eleven-day business trip without kissing Enid goodbye, and when he returns, he greets her by asking, “What did I ask you to do before I left? What is the one thing I asked you to do while I was gone?” Then, without even waiting for an answer, he disappears into his lab in the basement and smashes the jelly glasses he had asked her to move away from the top of the basement stairs. Enid channels her rage into the Dinner of Revenge. The menu, clearly meant to be a culinary manifestation of spite and passive-aggressive domestic squabbling, is liver and onions, boiled beet greens and mashed rutabaga. It’s designed specifically to be nutritionally and economically beyond reproach but gastronomically torturous.
Liver is clearly the prime offender:
Cauterized liver had the odor of fingers that had handled dirty coins…. Enid knew that Alfred hated liver, but the meat was full of health-bringing iron, and whatever Alfred’s shortcomings as a husband, no one could say he didn’t play by the rules.
But the rutabaga is definitely accessory to the crime:
Thukkety thukkety thukkety went Enid’s masher round the pot of sweet, bitter, watery rutabaga….
A dollop of mashed rutabaga at rest on a plate expressed a clear yellowish liquid similar to plasma or the matter in a blister.
It has precisely the intended effect on Albert, who chews and swallows bite after bite mechanically, telling himself he’s lived through worse. And their older son Gary either genuinely likes rutabaga or at least puts on a good show of it because he’s fiercely protective of his mother. But poor Chip improvidently eats the scant bits of bacon and onion accompanying the liver and then he’s left with plate full of bitter, soggy, gag-inducing horror. Dutifully filling the role of family disciplinarian, Albert demands that he eat his dinner, and it’s actually the rutabaga that’s singled out as the source of special revulsion:
He [Chip] actually picked up his fork and made a pass at the craggy wad of rutabaga, tangling a morsel of it in his tines and bringing it near his mouth. But the rutabaga smelled carious and was already cold—it had the texture and temperature of wet dog on a cool morning—and his guts convulsed in a spine-bending gage reflex.
Finally, Albert eats most of the rutabaga for him, which is portrayed as an act of great paternal love:
Alfred leaned over Chipper’s plate and in a single action of fork removed all but one bite of the rutabaga. He loved this boy, and he put the cold, poisonous mash into his own mouth and jerked it down his throat with a shudder. “Eat that last bite,” he said, “take one bite of the other, and you can have dessert.” He stood up. “I will buy the dessert if necessary.”
But Chip still can’t manage to eat the last bite, and not only does he go without dessert, he’s not allowed to leave the table. Albert disappears back to his lab and Enid and Gary do the dishes and play ping pong and eventually go to bed, with Enid carefully avoiding the dining room and rationalizing her way out of taking any responsibility for the situation because, as she tells Gary, it’s “between Dad and Chipper.” But Dad forgets about Chip entirely until late that evening, when he finally emerges from the basement to find the boy asleep at the table with his face on his placemat, the victim of revenge in the form of rutabaga.
Potatoes of Revelation
On the complete opposite end of mashed-root-vegetable-as-symbol continuum (this is honestly the sort of thing I spend my days thinking about: spatial/temporal metaphors for the range of representations of mashed root vegetables I have encountered), are the rapturous descriptions of Joël Robuchon’s mashed potatoes or “purée de pommes de terre.” Robuchon is widely recognized as one of the architects of the “nouvelle cuisine” that rose to prominence in both France and the U.S. the 1970s, which is largely responsible for the reigning cult of “fresh, local, seasonal” and the idea that great cooking is distinguished by making ingredients taste like as much like themselves as possible instead of altering them beyond recognition.
The mashed potatoes he served at the first restaurant he opened in Paris have achieved a sort of cult status. Here’s how sociologist Barry Glassner describes them in The Gospel of Food (which is ostensibly about excessive food worship and not, as the title might lead you to believe, a guide to practicing the religion of food…but actually does a little bit of both):
Made from the finest butter (and a great deal of it, eight ounces for every pound of potato) and la ratte, an heirloom potato with a hazelnut flavor, Robuchon’s mashed potatoes changed lives. In conversations with food enthusiasts in the nearly twenty years since I tasted that dish at Jarmin, I have discovered that I am far from the only person who credits that potato puree with a lifelong interest in great cooking.
In other words, Robuchon’s mashed potatoes are to Barry Glassner what sole meunière was to Julia Child, what oysters were to M.F.K. Fisher—something transformative, the kind of food that inspires awe and changes lives and elevates the acts of cooking and eating to something above and beyond the mere sustenance of life or a debased bodily pleasure.
And that may seem a little excessive or silly. I mean, how impressive can it possibly be to make potatoes mashed with that much butter and milk or cream taste delicious? But that’s a bit like the “my kid could paint that” response that abstract art sometimes elicits, which is almost always untrue and moreover, irrelevant. Your kid didn’t paint it, and if he or she had, that wouldn’t necessarily prevent it from being an equally brilliant use of the medium. Sure, it might not take a genius to figure out that heirloom potatoes turned into a silken puree that’s almost 1/8 butter will taste divine, even if you might not expect it to be so good it makes people who eat it contemplate food and pleasure and the nature of the potato and see all of those things in a new and different light. But then, you didn’t come up with it, did you?
While I’m sure la ratte is an exceptionally delicious potato, they key to the recipe is pretty clearly the ratio of butter: potato, which is so legendary that it’s acquired a kind of fish story tendency towards exaggeration. Before writing this entry, I was actually under the mistaken impression that Robuchon’s purée contained more butter, by weight, than potato. But the largest ratio I found in any of the recipes purporting to reproduce them (usually with pedestrian Russets instead of la ratte) is 1 part butter for 4 parts potato (one cup, or 1/2 lb of butter for two pounds of potato). And usually the suggested ratio is the one Glassner describes: one stick of butter for two pounds of potato or 1:8. Plus a cup of hot milk.
In retrospect, looking at that recipe, it’s painfully obvious that Robuchon’s potatoes are actually more like a butter-based sauce that happens to use potato as a thickening agent than a vegetable side dish. Ah, hindsight.
Butter-baga, or Just Because You Can Doesn’t Always Mean You Should
Even though I really liked the rutabaga I had at Thanksgiving, when I tried to recreate that at home, I sort of began to understand why so many people hate it. It must vary based on the rutabaga—or perhaps the climate or how long they’re stored—but some of them are definitely sweeter than others, sometimes in a way that’s not entirely pleasant, and some of them seem to have a more pronounced bitterness. They’re also harder than potatoes, more fibrous and more watery, which is why they tend to extrude liquid when mashed.
And yet they’re enough like potatoes that I began to wonder whether Robuchon’s formula for transcendent potatoes could produce something equally divine using rutabaga as a base—whether if, by pureeing it until exceptionally fine and adding an amount of butter bordering on the obscene, I could produce something so rich and silky that it would be to Revenge Rutabaga what Robuchon’s puree is to normal mashed potatoes.
I don’t have a ricer or a tamis, which is apparently what Robuchon uses to produce his incredibly fine puree without the potato getting gummy. But rutabaga is slightly less starchy than the potato and harder to mash, even when you cook it a long time, so I used a food processor instead. That worked just fine—even after running it for 5-8 minutes, the mash wasn’t gummy at all. Actually, it was gorgeously silky and ethereal—I had planned on pressing it through a sieve, but that didn’t seem necessary. I didn’t add as much milk because, as noted, rutabaga already has slightly higher moisture content and I held back on the butter a little bit, which seems like a ridiculous thing to say when you add an entire stick of butter to something but there was somewhere between 3-4 lbs of rutabaga , so the ratio of butter:rutabaga was somewhere in the 1:12-1:16 range.
It was still almost unbelievably rich. It actually didn’t taste a whole lot like rutabaga, either (for better or worse). It mostly just tasted like butter. And butter is delicious and all, but it’s kind of hard to eat very much of it. So one of the drawbacks of this recipe is that rutabaga is a sort f difficult ingredient to scale down. They are often, like the one pictured above, rather large. I essentially made a massive amount of incredibly rich rutabaga-based butter sauce, which is something I might want to eat a few tablespoons of once in a great while.
Recipe: Rutabaga Purée
- One large rutabaga
- 1/2 cup (1/4 lb) butter
- 1/2 cup milk
- salt and pepper to taste
1. Set a large pot of water to boil, and peel the rutabaga and dice into 1/2”-1” cubes.
2. Boil the rutabaga until it’s fork-tender—about an hour.
3. Puree with the butter and milk until completely smooth and season to taste with salt and pepper.