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Waiting for rhubarb amid the gloom of spring and remembering the kitchens of old

The appetite for rhubarb upside down cake, sauce and pies grow stronger even as the plants’ first leaves struggle to emerge in the cold and gloomy weather, Mychal Wilmes says.

Jan Sanderson, 66, owner of Sanderson Gardens of Aurora, S.D., starts his season in the early summer with asparagus and rhubarb crops, then goes to strawberries, raspberries and pumpkins, before shifting to rhubarb and horseradish root crops. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)
While farmers are waiting to plant their crops, Mychal Wilmes is waiting for the first delicacies featuring fresh rhubarb.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek file photo
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The appetite for rhubarb upside down cake, sauce and pies grow stronger even as the plants’ first leaves struggle to emerge in the cold and gloomy weather

The vegetable, so rich in vitamin K, has been cultivated since ancient Chinese times. It arrived in the United States in 1820 and grew in Thomas Jefferson’s showcase garden.

Farmers are getting a little anxious in these parts as nary a wheel has turned as April ended. Conditions are much worse in North Dakota, where heavy snow in the west and flooding conditions on the eastern border darken spring.

My prayers are with them.

Back to the rhubarb.


mychal wilmes.jpg
Mychal Wilmes

Mother, who fertilized rhubarb and the entire garden, was busy in early May with a mini-harvest season of her own. Parsnips that overwintered in the ground because the cold made them sweeter, needed digging as did the horseradish, which was so devilish strong that gloves to be worn when it was pushed through the grinder. The aroma — stronger even than fermenting cabbage — filled the house and stung the eyes.

Horseradish, packed in baby food jars, was kept frozen, which protected its strength. Dad, who liked its sinus-clearing ability, might have agreed with an ancient Greek teacher who said, “The radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet worth its weight in silver, and the horseradish, its weight in gold.:

It was considered an effective treatment of rheumatism, tuberculosis, and a host of other ailments. Dad used it test the meddle of boyfriends whom his daughters brought home to meet the family. Horseradish accompanied roasts and ham to the table against mother’s spoken wish.

“Here, try some of this," Dad would say after meat had been passed around the table. The beaus, who were unaware of its powerful impact, always took too much and were shaken to their core.

Family members (at least the boys who didn’t know better) watched in gleeful anticipation for their reaction.

Dad laughed heartedly, daughters cringed, and Mother lectured him. The important thing was how the young men reacted. If they laughed it off, they were OK with Dad.

Mother tried hard and infrequently succeeded in tamping down the mayhem around the table among her boys, who followed the philosophy that those who eat the fastest gets to most.

It started when pancakes were served, and continued at supper with fried chicken, and who received the choicest pieces. Good table manners were too often optional in the no-holds-barred environment.


“Mike, help your mother clean off the table."

When that was done, she asked about homework and watched while math assignments and spelling words were stumbled through.

I would also be tasked with jobs that were (in my estimation) beneath my talents. It was clear to me then that if Mother had her druthers her last born child would have been a girl. As it was, her youngest was dual-purpose.

Potato peelings and table scraps must be carried to the chickens, eggs gathered, rugs hung on the line and dirt beaten out of them, and garden weeds pulled. Mother said that I was a lucky boy for having to do so.

Her own mother demanded the same from her, when the self-reliance learned served her well when the Great Depression hit, and money was a scarce as hen’s teeth.

Get by with what you have, and don’t buy anything unless you have money to pay for it. Remaining guilt involves reluctance to carry heavy basket loads of wet clothes up the basement stairs to the wash line, and for other examples of plain laziness.

If only I had known what I know now, I would have agreed with her about chores and money. Perhaps that is why the rhubarb in my backyard receives so much attention; it was the source of great treats and memories.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

Opinion by Mychal Wilmes
Farm Boy Memories
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