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Rutabaga Curling Slideshow by David Sommerstein
In his children’s book Rootabaga Stories author Carl Sandburg writes, “Welcome to Rootabaga Country—where the railroad tracks go from straight to zigzag…”
This is rutabaga country – the farmer’s market in Ithaca, New York. It’s a chilly late December day. Still, people are lined up to register for the 5th Annual Rutabaga Curl. Contestants pay a buck, get a number, and then choose from a bin full of purplish cousins of the turnip and the cabbage.
Curlers are allowed to make minor adjustments to their rutabaga. Ellie Hobbie hacks at hers with a knife. She says she's trimming the ends of her rutabaga, "to make it more aerodynamic, that isn’t the word, but more rollable."
Rutabaga curling bears little resemblance to the Canadian sport involving ice, stones, and brooms. It’s more of a cross between bowling and shuffleboard. You roll the rutabaga down the wooden market floor to a small blue circle 79 feet away. The closest rutabaga to the target wins.
The brains behind the sport, and the commissioner of the International Rutabaga Curling Federation is Steve Sierigk, a middle-aged guy with a sly smile. He’s a greeting card vendor at the market. It all began six years ago, he says, on an especially bitter day with scant customers. Some of the vendors were getting bored, and "just trying to keep warm, just jumping up and down, talk turned to crazy winter sports like curling, and we realized that nobody knew the rules."
So they just started rolling stuff, Seirigk says: "Turnips, potatoes, even a frozen chicken. They were all getting big laughs. I remember a cabbage going down the floor. In fact, that was my particular choice. I threw a cabbage and it was shedding its leaves as it was going down the floor.
But it was the tumbles of the rutabaga that got the most laughs. Over the winter Sierigk codified rules, and rutabaga curling was born.
Passers by recognize defending world champion James Neidhardt as he warms up on the practice court. He says the most important thing about what he calls "rutabaga hurling" is visualization, "and transferring that visualization into the action of hurling the rutabaga. It’s really more of a push than a hurl. First thing I do is I line up my rutabaga. I take my spot, which is about six inches off center, keep my eye on the spot, and just slowly…"
He hurls the vegetable.
"That was way off the mark."
But there’s still more time to practice as 75 curlers, young and old, stand around bundled in parkas and polar fleece. They cradle their rutabagas like infants and await the arrival of the Rutabaga Queen.
When she does, it's with a flurry, as the announcer declares “the torch from Mount Cruciferous and the 5th annual rutabaga curling championships is about to begin!”
With a pine bough crown and a torch made of, yes, a rutabaga, the Rutabaga Queen jogs into the market. Competitors fall in step for the annual parade and thrust their rutabagas high over their heads as the theme from Chariots of Fire plays in the background.
Marissa Iacobucci and Joe Carruzzo gawk from the sidelines and try to make sense of it all. Finally, they conclude "It’s just one of those Ithacan things where people get together and do these esoteric things…It’s community, community, and it makes it fun."
The president of the local chamber of commerce rolls out the first rutabaga. And finally, the first curler steps up to the line, to rowdy approval.
A couple hundred spectators line the court. Play is half sport, half theater. The referees run around like keystone cops. There’s the guy who tries to throw a black radish disguised as a rutabaga. There’s the "ethical treatment of rutabaga" protestors. And there’s the rutabaga cheerleaders, rooting for rutabagas.
There are three qualifying rounds, the nine best curls advance to the finals. Each curler gets just one roll….
The rutabaga is an unpredictable vegetable. An average curl looks right on target at first, then tends to wobble off course. Founder Steve Sierigk calls this “the great leveler” of the sport: "You really can’t control your rutabaga that much, so it takes sort of the athletic element out of it to the point where even if someone’s brand new to the sport, they can do pretty well."
In fact, no one has won the championship twice. And after the last tuber rumbles down the court, the winner is 8 year-old David Tregaskis. Amidst camera flashes and adoring fans at the medal ceremony, he clutches his victorious rutabaga with one hand. He munches on a candy cane with the other and dispenses rutabaga wisdom: "The kind of trick is to roll it not very far because the people are just rolling it very far past yours."
As the ceremony concludes, Commissioner Sierigk stands to the side and savors every last minute of the fun: "During this competition I’ve seen people who are usually stone-faced and pretty serious break out into the biggest laughs. It’s kind of that playful spirit that people still have even as adults."
Ithacans hope that spirit will help dispel the darkness of the season until the days grow longer. Meanwhile, Commissioner Sierigk will look for ways to spread the joy of the rutabaga around the world. The next step, he says with a sly smile, is inclusion in the Olympics.