I’m a sucker. The Dihedral tells me to write, I write. Carrot recently posted about cakes with unusual ingredients, which brought up rutabagas and radio, only one of which goes in a cake.
Every industry needs its trade association and rutabagas are no different. Grocery co-operatives tend to emphasize local ingredients, and community radio tends to be more eclectic than commercial radio. The three coalesced back in 1976.
I was the produce manager of a Wisconsin grocery co-operative. I emphasized local and seasonal foods. South American fruit was relatively new on the market and I refused to stock peaches in January. January in Wisconsin is not prime growing time. What is available is what can be stored – mostly apples and root vegetables. Mushrooms were grown all year. Back then, pickings were slim. When the local broccoli and Brussels sprouts ran out, we turned to California and Arizona for more and more. At least it wasn’t halfway across the world. Now farmers are extending the growing season with hoop houses.
Rutabagas were plentiful, but the commercial ones were heavily waxed for storage which scared people. Plus, folks of that generation were not familiar with them and didn’t know how to prepare them. Since they are known in some parts as “yellow turnips” and people thought of turnips as bitter, that didn’t help. What to do?
I found an ad in a trade journal from The Ontario Rutabaga Council. Ontario, Canada, grows a lot of rutabagas and had a trade association devoted to their promotion. The best I can find now is the Southwestern Ontario Rutabaga Growers’ Association, though I also found the G2G Rutabaga Ride. If any of you folks in Canada have done the ride, tell us about it in the comments.
I wrote to the Council and they happily supplied me with lots of rutabaga recipes. I wrote them up on 3×5 stock and went to a print shop where I had them made up into tear-off pads that I could display with the rutabagas. While there was something to be said for the Rutabaga Turban, it was the Rutabaga Spice Cake that caught my eye. Having made Chocolate Potato Cake from a 1930s era edition of The Joy of Cooking, Rutabaga Spice Cake sounded like the next step.(Mashed potatoes or shredded rutabagas, like carrots, add a rich moistness to a cake. You could probably make a parsnip cake. Someone probably has.)
Community radio was and is a different animal. When I started, I did a ½ hour children’s show, in which I read stories with the promise to stay away from damsels in distress rescued by knights in shining armor. I found a world of children’s literature I had never imagined, but I had trouble getting people to talk with me at parties when they asked what I had been reading lately. Among my finds were stories by the playwright (The Bald Soprano, Rhinoceros) Eugene Ionesco and poet ee cummings. Ionesco’s stories and the accompanying art were surreal. cummings was surprisingly sweet. Too late for the show I found the work of novelist (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) Ken Kesey, as it was not yet published. “The Girl Who Cried Flowers” by Jane Yolen was another favorite.
I had a deal with a local bookstore in which I could borrow any book to read as long as I acknowledged the loan on-air. I spent hours in the kids section. Since I ended up buying my favorites, everyone did well on the deal.
The station changed formats. It became “free-form”. That meant that, instead of ½ hour, I had 3 ½ hours and, instead of limiting myself to children’s stories, I could do anything. Musically, radio tends to organize itself by genre, so you don’t get your mind stretched very far. In free-form, I was free to make any connections my little brain cared to follow. Starting from, say, the Quintette du Hot Club de France with Django Rheinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, one could go in several directions. Violin-based jazz? Violin in rock music? Bluegrass? A violin concerto? From each of those there are more options. Or maybe it was Roma music, which could then lead into other ethnic folk musics. Or maybe guitar-based jazz, or virtuoso guitarists in other genres. A ½ hour set could go anywhere and end up nowhere near where it started, leading into the next set that could be nothing like the previous one. Or it could be brought full circle.
I was encouraged to continue to read, but I was expressly told not to confine myself to children’s literature. One day was devoted to the music and poetry of San Francisco, starting with the beats and moving through music inspired by them. On a -20º day I read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”.
So how did this all come together? I started a news segment with news of the food industry, and called it Rutabaga World News. It became a brief market report about seasonal foods. My first foray into interviewing was an absolute disaster, with a much too esoteric topic, a single interviewee, and a light hand at editing, trying for the extended story model of All Things Considered. It was not a topic worthy of an extended story.
I wrote a much tighter story on a Florida freeze and its effect on the citrus crop and how that would soon affect pricing and availability. I had a great interview with an industry spokesperson in Florida. It was punchy, timely, and tightly edited. When I put the tape reel in the machine and pressed “play”, nothing happened. The station’s tape deck had died. By the next week when the tape deck would be fixed, it would be old news. I tried to fake it by conducting the interview with myself and changing my voice for the interviewee.
The show needed a theme song. The Mothers of Invention, on the album Absolutely Free (1967), had the solution. I used an excerpt and you can probably discern where I made the cuts.
I later changed to an excerpt from this live version with The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan of The Turtles) on vocals.
Never one to stand still too long, I needed a new theme song, something easier to dance to. I discovered The Good Ol’ Persons and “The Rutabaga Boogie” (1977). Here is the definitive version. Since I recorded from a radio broadcast, I missed a bit, so following it is the original by composer Paul Shelasky.
For those of the Northern California persuasion, this was from a one-time broadcast on listener-sponsored KKUP out of Cupertino, featuring the on-air staff from the legendary KFAT in Gilroy (which later rose from the ashes as KPIG).
Alas, I seem to no longer have the recipe card. I can’t guarantee this is the same recipe, but here it is. Notice that this version calls for milk and eggs, as well as rutabaga, from Ontario. I think you can get away with substituting ingredients from wherever you live, if that is not Ontario.
Rutabaga Spice Cake (from Foodland Ontario)
- Cooking Time: 35 minutes
- Servings: 12
- 1-1/2 cups (375 mL) all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup (50 mL) packed brown sugar
- 1 tsp (5 mL) ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp (2 mL) each of salt, ground cinnamon, baking powder and baking soda
- 1 cup (250 mL) grated peeled Ontario Rutabaga
- 1 Ontario egg
- 1/4 cup (50 mL) vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup (125 mL) each of molasses and Ontario milk
- Icing sugar
In medium bowl, combine 1-1/2 cups (375 mL) all-purpose flour, 1/4 cup (50 mL) packed brown sugar, 1 tsp (5 mL) ground ginger, 1/2 tsp (2 mL) each salt, cinnamon, baking powder and baking soda. Stir in 1 cup (250 mL) grated peeled Ontario rutabaga. In small bowl, lightly beat 1 egg; add 1/4 cup (50 mL) vegetable oil and 1/2 cup (125 mL) each molasses and milk. Stir liquid mixture into dry mixture. Pour into greased 8-inch (2 L) square baking pan. Bake in 350°F (180°C) oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean. Cool on wire rack. Dust with icing sugar, if desired.
I made it as a layer cake and used a buttercream frosting.
Addendum, 12 hours after publication: I just learned that this recipe is quite different from the one I made, and that a friend has a copy of my earlier recipe from the Ontario Rutabaga Council. When I get it, I will post it.