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It's Time We Listened to the Vegetables

Food has long been used to send messages. If we listen, it can also teach us about our own humanity, the best and the worst. What do rutabagas and collard greens have to say?



Like it or not, food is synonymous with the South. Yeah, us Southerners know how to cook but beyond that, we also speak with our food. There are a thousand messages conveyed with any casserole, side dish, or dessert. In the land of ‘bless your heart’ and ‘ain’t that something’ never doubt our subtle superpowers.


Let’s take a minute to flip that on its head. Instead of speaking with our food, we should try listening to our food. Listen to what it can teach us about being the best and worst versions of ourselves.


How can food do that?


Read on, dear friend. Read on.


 

The Rutabagas


There was a god-awful smell throughout the entire house, and it emanated from the kitchen.


I was much younger then, somewhere between upper-elementary and middle school age. And that awful smell was the rutabagas on the stove. When you tell someone they look like death warmed over, this had to be the equivalent scent. Truly, this was not the first or second circle of hell on Dante’s inferno, it was much further down.


While I was partially gagging, my mom kept explaining that while they reek cooking, they taste wonderful. I did not fully believe her but decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. You know, stranger things have happened and all.


When it was time to eat, I went in and took a bite.


Let me just stop right here and say--in case you had any doubt, let me assure you; they taste just like they smell. In other words, rancid.


Never in my life have I desired or even attempted to digest those things ever again. Once was one time too many.


For those of you unfamiliar with these abominations, rutabagas are a root vegetable. While a cousin to turnips, they are frequently described as a cross between a turnip and a cabbage. They are bitter and once boiled they have the consistency of a potato. While you cook them, you need to lift the lid periodically to air the putrid smelling gases.


Odd thing for a vegetable.


Here’s the pivot. Let’s face it, at some point in our lives we have to deal with people who are rutabagas.


Thankfully, you do not come across them often. They look normal enough, no outward sign of their distinct aroma. But then you get a whiff of something, something you cannot ignore. An unpleasantness pervades the air, and you do not know whether it is evil, antipathy, aloofness, or just plain being out of touch. Your spidey-senses are tingling, and as you get closer to them the stench gets stronger.


As you evaluate your options in this deteriorating situation, someone or maybe even your own conscience convinces you to give them a chance or an opportunity. And against your better judgment, you begrudgingly do.


Of course it backfires, and spectacularly so.


Rutabagas are bitter and self-absorbed. They may be cognizant of their carnage on the surrounding environment, or they may be too ambivalent to notice. At their core, they do not know who they really are.


But they let you realize who you really are.


Our experiences shape us, mold us. And after dealing with a rutabaga, you learn from it and never go back. Rutabagas build your self-worth, your strength, and resilience but not without exacting a tortuous toll. Boundaries, faith, and a stronger sense of self are the fruits of this type of encounter.


I cannot promise you that it will be pleasant, but it will be the impetus for you to find and value peace and fresh air above all else.


Some things teach you how to be, and others how not to be.


Both are powerful.


 

The Collard Greens


I sat at the table, tears streaming down my face. Not the silent or stoic, dignified type of crying; this was sheer, unadulterated, ugly crying.


Over collard greens.


Like any Southern food story, it all begins with family. My Granny was a real Southern cook and long before it ever became fashionable. Whenever we would visit, a veritable buffet covered every surface of her tiny kitchen. There were always three to four kinds of meat, but everyone came for the sides. There were miles of sides: butter beans, acre peas, lace cornbread, hand creamed corn, squash casserole, stuffing and dressing, dumplings, pork and rice, and on and on.


But my favorite was always her collard greens.


Don’t get me wrong, I can make some great collard greens, but I could never get it quite like hers. She knew I did not care what else was on the menu so long as there were collards. Occasionally she would hem and haw about making them, but we both knew she would make them. And she always did.


Until the uninvited guest arrived that comes for us all.


Several years ago, she passed away. Her passing and the wake, her funeral, and the graveside service left us all raw and grieving in our own ways.


Of course, there are always logistics and details in death and loss. Her deep freezer was stocked with food. Among the whole turkeys and vegetables, there were several containers of her collard greens. You can guess what I took home with me.


A week later my husband made dinner and I sat down as he brought everyone’s plate to the table.


I looked down and saw the collard greens. Her collard greens.


Granny would never again be able to make them for me. She had made that dish while she was still living, not knowing that it would be her final act of love for her granddaughter. In that moment, grief and sorrow in the form of collard greens overwhelmed me. Tears and pot likker joined in a final embrace on an unassuming plate.


It was never just about the collard greens.


It was about love.


 

This world is full of rutabagas and collard greens, and if there is one bit of advice I can leave you with, it is this.


Don’t be a rutabaga.


There is no greater love than collard greens.



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2 Comments


Holly Bills
Holly Bills
Jul 11, 2023

Hopefully, the tears were bittersweet. And I know you can pull off something better than rutabagas. 😀 The fault in those things are the vegetable itself.

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What a beautiful memorial to Granny. And yes, I cried. On a lighter note, I hope I pull off something better than rutabagas before I die, so I’m not stuck with the rutabagas memory for future generations 🤣

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