Sunday, September 8, 2013

HOW TO SLICE A RUTABAGA: Lessons in Southern Cooking

Valentine's Day 2013 - in the
                    waiting room of Eastern Carolina 

 A woman in the waiting room where I sit asks another woman with a bandaged thumb, "What happened to your thumb, darlin'?"

The wounded woman hoists the gauzy thumb up into view so we can all see it. Great for hitch-hiking, I think to myself, flipping through a back-issue of Country Living while I wait for my husband to get out of kidney-stone surgery. But this woman doesn't seem the type to go around hitching a ride with strangers.  She seems more the off-white-Cadillac-with-the-gold-hood-ornament-and-leather-seats-type. 

The Driving-Miss-Daisy type.

The gray-haired woman sighs heavily.  "I was trying to cut up a rutabaga."

A low, murmur stirs the other women sitting around her.  Something like sympathy. A Southern I've-been-there-and-I -feel-your-pain kind of murmur. She has everyone's attention now, even the elderly lady who has been fighting with her thick blue yarn and long bamboo knitting needles.

Another grandmotherly woman in stretch pants holds up for us her right pointer-finger so we can see the pale white scar running the length of her finger.

"I got this when I was a young thing, just married and pregnant already, learning to cook Horace's favorite food.  He just loved rutabagas" – she dragged out the single syllable of the word: looooved – "and his mama made them for him every Sunday dinner along with the fried chicken.  We'd have to go to church and then go straight over to his mama's house for dinner because she made them rutabagas just for her boy.  That's what she called him - her boy. When his mama died from the sugar diabetes – God rest her soul – I thought I'd try to make them for him.  Sliced my finger straight through to the bone on the first try.  You could hold it under the faucet and pull it open and see right down to the pink bone, if you didn't pass out. Which I almost did."

We all lean in to get a better look at her scar.  Another woman, with dyed orange-red hair, pipes up brightly and says that the doc who stitched it up must-a been real good at stitchin' because you couldn't hardly see it unless you was to know it was there and go looking for it.

The scarred woman shrugs, "Nah. I didn't go.  Just wrapped it in torn diaper-cloth and put a fat rubber-band around it.  Horace wouldn't pay for no doctors back then." Horace must be the one in surgery here today.  The cheap bastard.  

Then she snaps back to her story:

"Every day I'd peel off the bloody wrap - and it hurt like the devil had gnawed it  - then I'd stick the cut finger way down in a cup of milk, then wrap it in a fresh piece of diaper-cloth and rubber-band it again.  Like that, for about two weeks or so, until it closed up and scabbed over. Horace didn't get no rutabagas from me again. Ever."

I take some mean-spirited pleasure in knowing that the unsympathetic Horace never again tasted the sweet rutabagas he'd craved all his life.

Meanwhile, the gauze-thumbed woman is in her own reverie, probably thinking she wished she had known that little trick about the milk and diaper-cloth before her visit to the E.R., for the two shots it had taken to numb the sliced thumb, and the thirteen stitches to close it up, and a tetanus shot afterwards for good measure.

Another woman, much older than the rest of the grandmothers, says, "I'll tell you how to slice a rutabaga, honey.  You just get you a rubber mallet and you hit it right hard on the stem place about 10 or 11 times. Real hard.  Works for turnips too."

That's when the youngest woman among us, a quiet little thing sitting with her grandmother, perks up, excitable suddenly to share her secret with these more seasoned kitchen cooks.  She says, "Oh, I just put the whole rutabaga in the microwave on high for 1 to 2 minutes.  It comes out hot though so I use a mitt to hold onto it.  But the skin will be real soft, soft as butter, so the knife-tip will just slide right through it."

She is beaming, happy to be a part of these older Southern women talking around her.  But all around us an awkward silence has fallen. The grandmothers exchange a look with the young woman's grandmother who, out of a deep and fervent love for her granddaughter, takes the girl's hand in hers and smiles at the offended women around her.

"Or, if you don't have – or like – a microwave, you can just slip the rutabaga into a pot of boiling unsalted water and it's just the same."

An appreciative little murmur goes through the group of women and they relax again, grateful that any talk of microwaving food is at an end. But now they are fixated on another perplexing thing:

Why unsalted water?

The wise grandmother, still holding onto her granddaughter's hand for consolation, says, "Now, you KNOW why.  Never, ever get salt in a wound.  You boil that rutabaga in salty water and then cut into it. . . ."

She trails off meaningfully and raises her eyebrows.  They all nod then and um-hm-hm and tsk-tsk, even the young wife.

Then they fall back to leafing through their magazines.  The gauze-thumbed woman stares still at her thumb, maybe wondering how she lost her audience and all that sympathy she initially had.

They know something, these older women.  All of them.  Something I cannot figure out.  Long after they leave that day - one by one, two by two, until I am the only woman remaining in the waiting room - I am trying to put all those pieces together, trying to solve the riddle of why the boiling water has to be unsalted. And all the tension that probably could have been cut with a sharp knife when a microwave was mentioned.

A wounded rutabaga. Salted. Pounded on the stem. Torn baby diapers. Bone-cuts dipped into a daily milk-bath. Fat rubber-bands. Kitchen wounds - earned wounds. And scars. That stingy old Horace who wouldn't take his hurt bride to a doctor. And a modern young woman who microwaves her rutabagas, a shameful thing for some reason I cannot fathom.

None of this conversation makes any sense to me.  But having just recently moved back into the deep South, I'd better start figuring this kind of stuff out or I'll have to just go on keeping my mouth shut in gatherings like these, lest I too be found wanting, to be practicing shameful things – like microwaving fresh vegetables – in my kitchen.

Who's knee-deep in Deep Dixie now?