Laura Gallup is the marketing and events coordinator for the Ithaca Farmers Market as well as the managing editor of Edible Finger Lakes magazine. She lives in Ithaca but grew up eating strawberries by the bucketful on her dad’s farm in Hector. In this new column, Laura will be sharing tips on how you can eat locally year-round.
At its core, the International Rutabaga Curling Championship is an athletic competition to see who can roll a rutabaga down the farmers market corridor and get it closest to a target. But the curl — which celebrates its 22nd year on Saturday, is truly much more than a sporting event.
“It’s like a joke that everybody gets,” said Steve Sierigk, retired commissioner of the curl.
Legend has it that in December of 1996, at the last market of a long season, a few vendors and customers got caught up in a laughing fit, throwing frozen chickens, produce, muffins and other wares down the cold, slippery floors of the market pavilion. In true American fashion, it turned into a competition to see who could hurl things the furthest. The next year Steve formalized the end-of-year celebration with a dedicated court and supplied rutabagas to anyone who wanted to play, and the joke was started.
“We created something that was over the top. And I realized – this is like community theatre,” said Steve. “After we did it for 10 years, I realized that this thing would really keep going.”
With the help of some creative vendors and customers, over the years the curl turned into something resembling an improv comedy show. While the competition is taken very seriously – with a professional MC on the mic, referees with whistles and a course lined by hay bales – it’s also seriously absurd.
The day starts with a parade of athletes led by the Rutabaga god and goddess carrying flaming torches, and then the crowd is serenaded by the Cruciferous Chorus, singing the Rutabaga Curl song. There are teams, cheerleaders, fake cameramen (and sometimes real media!) and costumes everywhere. In the chilly pavilion for one day a year, there is a shared sense of commitment to a fantasy world.
“When I was the commissioner, I always said the flaming torches were coming in from Mt. Cruciferous,” said Steve. “And if someone was interviewing me – and they’d say there’s no such thing, I’d say what? It’s as real as Santa Claus.”
This quintessential Ithaca event draws in people who love to play and be goofy, like Jeff Luomo. Jeff showed up at the curl 10 years ago and quickly became it’s biggest fan. “I love that it lets people be a part of a community event, and participate at any level they are comfortable with.”
The second-year that Jeff played, he organized a group of friends to hold End Rutabaga Curlty, protest signs as members of the People of Ithaca for the Ethical Care of Rutabagas Under Sensitive Treatment (P.I.E.C.R.U.S.T.) group. In the years that followed he focused on dressing in wild costumes, like Miley Cyrus’s tongue, a giant rutabaga and an elf from the north pole.
Jeff has since moved away from Ithaca, but still travels back every year to be the MC. He stands on a podium a few feet above the crowds and keeps the event moving. His love for the event shines through and his lively commentary makes every participant who steps up to curl feel like the star of the show.
“The fun about being the MC is – this is an utterly serious event, so you are in character, and you have to believe in it wholeheartedly,” said Jeff.
But the real star, the rutabaga, is a mysterious leading lady. The large, spherical, brownish vegetable is actually a cross between a cabbage and a turnip – landing it in the cruciferous family with cauliflower, kale, broccoli and Brussel sprouts. While it’s one of the least aesthetically-pleasing veggies, the rutabaga taste and texture are similar to carrots, turnips and parsnips.
“The trick with rutabagas is that you have to cook them thoroughly, and they can take a long time to cook,” said Lael Eisman, co-owner of Six Circles Farm. Lael and his brother Jacob harvested this year’s competition rutabagas in November and stored them away for the big day.
When it’s time to harvest rutabagas, one person walks down the rows and pulls the root vegetable from the dirt and throws them into piles. After that, another person takes a machete and hacks off the long root on the bottom and the greens from the top. What’s left is a dense, object, perfect for rolling down the market floor.
Rutabagas are planted in July but harvested only after the ground gets a few light frosts – because this makes them sweeter. “The starches in the vegetable turn into sugar when it gets really cold, because sugar acts like antifreeze,” said Lael. “It’s their way of protecting themselves.”
So, even if you don’t choose to participate in this year’s curl, you should cook sweet, delicious rutabagas all winter long. And when you do, just remember that for one cold afternoon each year, our community comes together to celebrate an ugly root vegetable — and the absurdity of it all.
Featured image and other select photo courtesy of Allison Usavage
The Ithaca Farmers Market’s last outdoor market will be this Saturday, December 21st. They will reopen the indoor, winter market Jan. 4th at the new location in Triphammer Marketplace.