I get cranberries: it’s rutabagas that baffle me.
I mean, you can see how we came to be eating cranberries. I’m not talking about cranberries dried and sweetened in cherry juice, or cranberries in fudge, muffins or shortbread, and similar downstream uses. I’m talking about the Basic Cranberry. Take fresh cranberries, pick out the stems and dried leaves, boil them for five minutes in water and something sweet, and hey! An entirely edible condiment for the Dread Turkey. It just doesn’t get much simpler: simple enough to have been managed over a campfire.
But rutabagas? Come on!
Don’t get me wrong: I quite enjoy yellow turnips. Indeed, I eat them oftener than cranberries, even though they’re not much good in fudge. They’re not what you’d call an Obvious Side Dish, either. Peel them, chop them into small-ish pieces with a big-ish knife, and boil. And boil. And boil. After 40 minutes or so, check to see if they’re soft enough for mashing. And boil some more. About an hour in, I usually give up and call it close enough. Hey! They taste just as good a little bit lumpy.
As I say, it baffles me. In a world where heat for cooking took some effort and sustained heat even more so — unlike the smooth-top cooking surface that graces my kitchen — how did rutabagas make the jump from field to table? It isn’t as if someone desperately hungry dug up a rutabaga and wondered whether it might be good to eat. No, someone else deliberately bred the rutabaga. Crossing cabbage with true turnip, those early genetic meddlers/modifiers just forgot to select for quick preparation. The quick preparation that is characteristic, say, of carrots, parsnips and potatoes (regular and sweet) — all of which cook in half the time a rutabaga takes, or less. As the cooking time for their creation dragged on and on, I wonder why they persisted.
I have the same conceptual problem with textiles. I get fur coats and sweaters: it’s silk that throws me for a loop.
I mean, you can see how people started wearing the furs of animals. Hey Joe! I’ve eaten all the inside bits. What should I do with this fuzzy outside bit? It doesn’t taste so good. And just like that, Joe invents politically incorrect outerwear. Even wool isn’t so much of a stretch. A moment of idle speculation — Do you suppose it would grow back? — and just like that, we have the beginnings of itchy long underwear and Perry Como’s cardigan.
But silk? Come on!
I mean, if you were needing a dress for the prom, would you think to gather up thousands of moth caterpillar cocoons, boil them for a long-ish time (there’s that sustained heat source, again), and then pick through the mushy result on the off-chance that it might be useful? And when you did get the short-ish strands typical of the wild worms, what exactly would make you persist in carding it for a long-ish time on the off-chance that you would get weavable lengths for your trouble?
I have some persistence, as those who know me can attest (with mixed feelings, I expect, since our virtues carried to excess become our vices). I even have some novel ideas: in my specialty, I design new work processes, finding better and simpler ways for people to work together. But my level of persistence and my degree of novelty add up to cranberries-and-fur-coats innovations, at best: Hey, Joe, wouldn’t it work better if we did that review a week or two earlier? Or, What about getting that schedule out of the computer and up on the wall, so we can meet in front of it? If it had been left to me to have the defining breakthroughs, Thanksgiving dinners would feature cranberries alongside braised cabbage, not mashed rutabaga, while graduations the world over would feature variations of the classic ‘cardigan over long underwear’ look. You could just forget about that prom dress.
My persistence and novelty don’t rise to the level of rutabagas-and-silk innovations: the ones that seem to start with off-the-wall questions, and finish with unhuman stick-to-it-iveness:
What if we made a thing without corners? Could we use that for something, do you think? Maybe call it a wheel?
Why shouldn’t people fly? Or travel underwater? Or live in outer space?
How’s about if we make a machine that can calculate for us?
Or even just, Hey, Joe, what if one of those machine-calculators were fun to use? Would that change what we do with it, do you think?
They’re special people, the rutabagas-and-silk innovators. I don’t really get what they do, or how they do it, but I do get that.