Rhubarb comes to life — Season of Eating just around the corner

I took a photography class in college. On the first day, Brother Zarr informed us that he didn’t want to see any photos of old people or kids. Anyone can shoot a picture of an old guy on a corner or a kid on a swing. It doesn’t take any creativity.

Writing about spring is like that. Whatever blogger or columnist you read is writing about spring right now. It’s such an amazing season of transition, green exploding everywhere, life rushing back to a comatose landscape. It doesn’t take any creativity.

So, I’m writing about spring. Brother Zarr would be disappointed.

Spring comes on us small and subtle at first: small buds, daffodil blossoms close to the ground, grass shifts from a dead green to a live green. Then one day, you look out and rhubarb is two feet tall with leaves the size of Iowa. There is nothing subtle about rhubarb.

I am especially glad to see our rhubarb this year. In a fit of cleaning up the garden last fall, Pam mowed it. She’s like that. She starts cleaning sometimes and can’t control herself. She wants everything clean. It’s not a quality we share.

Anyway, I expressed my concern that she may have harmed the rhubarb. We agreed to disagree, although I didn’t really agree. Our marriage survived and now the rhubarb is up. All is good. I love you, Pam.

That patch of rhubarb has been there since before me. I never thought to ask my parents about its origin. It’s always been there, the first thing to grow with such gusto every spring.

Rhubarb is not native to North America. Somewhere back in the 1800s, someone brought crowns or seed from the old country, probably unsure it would grow here. I’ll never know who that was or how the forebears of this rhubarb got to our farm. Trees, animals, and people have come and gone; the rhubarb outlasts them all.

That part of the garden is fifty feet from a corn/soybean field. Occasionally herbicide spray drift has wilted things in the garden. Not the rhubarb. I think our rhubarb is indestructible. That includes indiscriminate mowing.

Rhubarb’s main attribute is that it is the first edible of the spring. It’s an interesting flavor in jelly and desserts. It needs to partner up with something sweet to offset it’s tanginess.

When I was a kid, I took my mom’s sugar bowl out back and dipped stalks of rhubarb in the sugar before chomping them. In research for this column, I took Pam’s sugar bowl and tried that. (Don’t tell Pam; she also has this thing about double dipping.) I don’t think it will be the next food sensation, but prep time is minimal. It’s healthier than Twinkies.

Rhubarb has its limits. But the exciting thing about it is that it signifies the beginning of the Season of Eating. Eight months of fresh things from the land are in front of us. After that, we fall back into the four months where snow is all there is to consume off the land.

A lot of us are gardeners in rural places like this. Pam and I are in the group of Gardeners with Occasional Success. If we had to depend on our ability to grow food for our survival, we’d been gone long ago. But there are farmers’ markets and friends who share from their bounty. So, we eat pretty well.

The Season of Eating will soon offer those first things that can go in the ground, things that can handle a bit of frost. Radishes, green onions, leaf lettuce are all spring eating. Soon after, come garden peas. Heaven forbid, temperatures turn too hot for those delicates. A sumptuous green pea can turn into a starchy pebble in hours.

Friends Greg and Cathy Roiger always plant potatoes on Good Friday, per the old gardener’s tradition. Sometimes that means scratching away snow to perform that duty, but I always admired their commitment.

Whenever you get your potatoes in, if you can dine on boiled new potatoes dabbed in butter with green onion chunks in June, that is as close to the divine as you can get in this life.

The middle of summer brings green beans. A little later comes sweet corn. Now, we are full in the glory of local eating. Both of those also take full advantage of the ability of butter to make literally everything better.

The curse that was margarine has mostly been lifted. Whatever crazed scientist invented margarine has hopefully been exiled to some desert island where he can spend his days, forced to eat Blue Bonnet on Wonder bread.

At some point in summer, melons get good. I’ve never had luck growing those, but I enjoy the water and musk types that come up from Missouri and Iowa. You might have to buy one or two mediocre ones, but when you get a good one, oh my.

Among my favorite vegetables and healthiest to eat are broccoli and cauliflower. I’ve mostly given up growing those. In the race to consume those between me and the cabbage loopers, I always finish second.

When we come to August, it is the time of tomatoes and zucchini. Now the possibilities become endless. There is so much you can do with these staples of the veggie world. The good news is they are among the easiest to grow. Most years tomatoes and zucchini are rhubarb-like in their ability to thrive.

They can even tolerate a few weeds. I mentioned Pam and I are Gardeners with Occasional Success. Speaking of weeds, I can tell you the moment each summer that keeps us from being Great Gardeners.

We keep the garden reasonably weed-free through June. Then comes a July day when it’s hot and muggy, and weeds are giving one last push to conquer territory. I’m on the screen porch, listening to the Twins game on the radio, with a cold Grain Belt in my hand. Right then I could go weed another time. Or I can succumb to relaxation.

The spirit is strong, but the flesh is weak. I stay on the screen porch. The next day the weeds have won.

The Season of Eating winds down in the fall when we bake the first squash. Acorn, butternut, and buttercup are each unique and each good. And their aggressive vines thrive amidst the weeds that I gave up on in July.

All that delightful eating begins now. The rhubarb tells us that.

There, I wrote about spring. Maybe I’ll go take a picture of an old person. Hey, I can take a selfie!

— Randy Krzmarzick farms on the home place west of Sleepy Eye, where he lives with his wife, Pam.


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