Friday, May 06, 2016
Growing up in Minnesota, wherever we lived, there was rhubarb. My earliest memories of rhubarb are of my mother cutting the first ready stalk, hacking off both ends, and letting me sit on the back step with a custard cup of sugar. The end of the crunchy stalk was dipped in the sugar, and then a tart, crisp, gritty bite was taken. I rarely finished the whole stalk, and never asked for a second one the rest of the growing season, but that very first taste was the taste of spring.
The last hobby farm my parents owned sported a large garden with a long row of rhubarb - it had to be at least 30 feet long. As soon as it was ready to pick, mom filled the freezer with bags of frozen cut rhubarb, and put up jars of cooked sauce. She gave away what she could to friends and relatives and then called our neighbor, "Scherber," to come and harvest what he wanted for his family. He always showed up in his pick-up truck, three of his sons in the back, with a stack of galvanized wash tubs. They were like locusts - they took everything that remained, every year, filled those wash-tubs to overflowing, and his wife thanked my mother effusively, saying how much it helped keep her large family fed with some sort of fruit throughout the winter.
My former mother-in-law (who hailed from South Dakota) loved rhubarb. She also never did anything halfway - when rhubarb was in season, we had rhubarb everything - cakes in numerous iterations, pies in almost as many different ways as cakes, and sauce. Even she couldn't make a dent in my mother's rhubarb patch. I bet the Scherber family was glad of that.
The first house my now-ex and I owned had a patch of rhubarb. It took up a large spot next to the fence where I wanted to plant a hedge to soften the fence line. The first year we had the house, we dug up the rhubarb, but it came back the next spring. That year, we roto-tilled the rhubarb, thinking that would destroy it. Instead, rhubarb came up the entire length of the fence the next year. That fall, I planted tulip bulbs and let everything come up together happily the next spring. Though I gave up trying to eliminate it, I came to see rhubarb as a nuisance, almost a weed.
The taste of rhubarb now represents spring and promise, and that first fresh taste of grow-your-own abundance I remember from Lolo's garden. However, I haven't had rhubarb once since I left Minnesota in 1997. For many of my adult years, rhubarb was not the taste of spring or youth, but the taste of "eat it, we can't waste it." But now... without the taste of it in nearly 20 years, it has taken on a new symbolism, it brings back fond memories right up there with irises around the pump house, and the sound of spring peepers.
Today I made the trek to our local upscale grocer - AJ's. I *love* shopping there, though I don't do so very often. I made my selection at the seafood counter, and headed toward checkout through the produce aisle. Everythingin the produce aisle is carefully, lovingly arranged. The produce manager stood near the display, making fresh cuts on the ends of ruby-red stalks of rhubarb, and artistically arranging them in beautiful straight lines. I couldn't help myself, I said (rather loudly) "OHhhh, rhubarb!" He smiled when I asked if he minded if I disrupted his display, and told me to help myself while he went back to the computer to check the price; he didn't want me to have "sticker shock." I told him I needed a couple other things as well, to take his time. I also told him how delighted this Minnesota girl was to see rhubarb. When he returned, he said "I'm glad I checked - it's only $5.99 a pound now. When we had the hothouse stuff over the winter, it was $11 a pound." I didn't think I could have sticker shock over the price of rhubarb, but I was wrong! I told him that I'd once treated it as a weed, and now I am happily paying $5.99 a pound for that taste of my youth. He smiled and told me that if he could grow rhubarb in Arizona, he could retire, just because of people like me.
During a visit back home to Minnesota a few years ago, I drove past the place where mom had a 30 foot row of rhubarb. Scherber bought our old hobby farm and folded into his property when my mom moved away after my dad died. The old farm house is torn down now, and two of his sons have built new houses on the property - one of them right on top of the rhubarb patch. I guess they got sick of rhubarb too. I wonder if they know that they have apparently built their new house on a gold mine.
(That little bundle of rhubarb up there at the top of the post cost $6.14. I am happily paging through Lolo's recipe box and old cookbooks, deciding how to use it.)