The Advanced Rutabaga Studies Institute

Forest Grove, Oregon - Rutabaga Capital of the World
"Your Root in the Third Millenium"

A Brief History of the Rutabaga

This hearty annual or bienniel, Brassicca napus, superficially resembles the common turnip, Brassica rapa. However, the rutabaga is endowed with more carbohydrates, sugars and vitamin C, has a firmer flesh (as the interminable cooking times will attest) and keeps longer.

Though the early history of the rutabaga remains obscure, the name is derived from the Swedish words for "thick root." The rutabaga can be cultivated in the most marginal climates and soils of places like Scandanavia, Finland and Ireland. Until the importation of the potato from South America in the mid-16th century, entire populations on the fringes of Europe were sustained by the rutabaga and the less-worthy turnip.

In the author's Irish ancestral homeland, the rutabaga was quickly supplanted by the potato despite the latter's inferior taste and nutritional value. The author's research indicates that the popularity of the potato in Ireland was more a consequence of its suitability for the manufacture of poteen, a form of whiskey or liquor that could be easily distilled from the potato in modest home stills. Previous efforts to extract liquor from the rutabaga proved disappointing, notwithstanding the traditional ingenuity of certain of his ancestors in this regard.

Rutabaga storage sheds near the boyhood home
of Obie MacAroon I, Troutlake, Washington

The Rutabaga: The Original Jack O'Lantern

It is well known that the Christian feast day Hallowmas, or All Saint's Day, was meant to usurp the ancient druidic rites and other pagan celebrations of the fall harvest and the onset of darkness. On the last night of October, the druids set bonfires across the land to protect themselves from the spirits of the dead which freely roamed. Soothsayers proclaimed visions of the future after ritually jumping over rows of candles. This Celtic festival of Samhain was also a night of ghosts and demons, with rowdy bands of children known as "guisers" prowling the streets in hideous masks.

The rutabaga, fruit of the subterranean darkness, was a central fixture of the Samhain. The young guisers carried "jack o'lanterns" carved from rutabagas (or turnips), a tradition based on the legend of a blacksmith named Jack who mortgaged his soul to the demons of the underworld. Jack found his way through the netherworld by hoisting a large hollowed rutabaga containing a glowing coal. Unfortunately, this noble tradition has been undermined by the modern introduction of the upstart pumpkin, Cucurbita pepo, to replace the ancient rutabaga as the jack o'lantern. Cucurbita pepois a pulpy and malodorous gourd, consisting mainly of seeds and a stringy mass at its center. It is inedible without the addition of vast quantities of sugar and cinnamon.

Revisionist etymologists have begun to challenge the widespread assumption, fostered by the Anglican church and others, that "Hallowe'en" is derived from "All Hallows Eve." Ancient Celtic manuscripts, recently uncovered, refer to "Hollow's Eve" in clear reference to the hollowed rutabagas which the guisers carried. The modern "Hallowe'en" is therefore nothing more than a convenient mistranslation and contraction of the the Celtic "Evening of the Hollowed Rutabagas." Thus our culture has lost a splendid metaphor: the fecund and tenacious rutabaga defying the sense of growing darkness, loss and emptiness associated with the season. We have also lost, as a staple in our diets, a tasty, inexpensive, colorful and nutritious root.

By Obie MacAroon III, ARSI President for Life
Copyright 1997

[For a blasphemous version of the Celtic/Irish origins of the Jack O'Lantern, read Jack of the Turnip by Terry H Jones.]

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