The Hubs sauntered in after feeding the birds and squirrels with a question, “when do I need to set out the hummingbird and Oriole feeders?” “First of May is when they arrive,” I replied. I was already gearing up and bought the 2 biggest jars of grape jelly Meijer had last week. (No I don’t feed them my homemade grape jelly, it’s too much work to make it and I don’t want to spoil the Orioles by giving them the good stuff). “Oh, by the way,” he continued, “your rhubarb is up if you want to pick some.”
Memories flooded through me, and my mouth started watering (in the best way). I won’t say something crazy like I’ve had this obsession with rhubarb since I was born. Pretty clear I was about 6 when my lifelong devotion to this super/sour fruit began (I think it’s really a vegetable, but that doesn’t seem right). It was after we moved to 15th Street in 1955. I was almost 5. Our family of 5 moved into one of the oldest houses in town. My dad started remodeling and never stopped until he sold the place in 2005. Our lot wasn’t particularly wide (like most city lots except Rock Valley wasn’t a city, maybe 1,500 souls of mostly Dutch descent), but the backyard was deep. And it was all ours until you hit the alley that divided us from the backyards of the houses facing north on 16th street.
At the back of our lot was a huge double garage with a dirt floor that bordered the alley. Dad kept all kinds of tools and building supplies on a workbench that ran almost the width of the garage. He wasn’t super neat but always seem to know exactly where everything was when he needed it. In the northwest corner of our yard was a patch of rhubarb half the size of dad’s big garage. And it was then I discovered my love for this strange plant. (Ha, I do eat plant based foods).
Mom warned me, “The leaves are poisonous. If you want to eat rhubarb, bring the stalks in the house and I’ll cut off the tops, bottoms and peel it.” (as if I could eat just one-haha) “After the outside is peeled, the rhubarb is kind of wet. Your uncle Floyd and I ate rhubarb when we were little. Grandma Jantje (yon-chee) would give us a small dish with a bit of sugar in it. We’d dip the rhubarb in the sugar before we took a bite. Want to try some?” “Sure,” I said with my mouth full of drool. It smelled so good.
A new business had recently opened in Rock Valley. It was called a drive-in. You drove to the place, parked in the lot but didn’t get out of your car. The menu was printed on the side of the building. Usually a high school girl walked up to your car to take your order. She’d walk up to the window, hand the order to the cooks and a few minutes later she’d bring a heaping tray of food which she’d latch onto your partially lowered window. Dad would glance at the sandwiches and pass out the food. It was such a neat, new concept. Boiling ‘Hot August Nights’ (thanks Neil) and mom wouldn’t have to make our non-air-conditioned house any hotter. We’d just head over to the drive-in for supper. Or a dessert of soft serve ice cream after supper when we went for a ride to cool off.
This was an inspiration in our kid-friendly packed neighborhood. Let’s play ‘drive-in.’ We had a perfect spot in our backyard. Dad built a neat playhouse before we moved, complete with windows, door, even a chimney, which he loaded on a flatbed and moved to our new house. Our busy drive-in had the obligatory 3-C’s. Customers, cooks and carhops. A real pretend thriving business.
After learning how to trim rhubarb it became part of my daily diet all summer long, though not as good in July as in spring. The stalks get bigger and tougher. But over time there was a transformation in the way I ate rhubarb. I’m not sure how this particular change took place. Since we moved we had a lot of kids on our block. It might have been one of the Schmidt’s, Van Oort’s, Hamann’s or Beumer kids, or possibly my sibs Mona or Larry. However it came to be I’m not quite sure, but I stopped eating rhubarb with sugar.
It tasted so much better doused in salt. (For the record I’m not a salt eater, never have been. Don’t sprinkle it on baked potatoes, sweet corn or watermelon. However, rhubarb and French fries are my salt-free exceptions). We’d trim, peel and cut the rhubarb into bite size pieces. Grab a melmac bowl from mom’s cupboard, dump in the rhubarb, add some cold water and lots of salt. Let that marinate. Whatever you ordered at our state of the art drive-in, hot fudge sundae, hamburger and fries, chocolate milkshake, what came on your tray was a small bowl of dripping wet, salt infused, delicious rhubarb, sprinkled with more salt than you could shake a stick at. This is how we spent many days for a couple of our summers in the 1950’s.
After the Hubs and I eloped we moved frequently the first few years, but I don’t think we ever lived where we didn’t have a nice patch of rhubarb for me to munch on from April through mid summer. As I (slowly) learned to cook and bake, Rhubarb cake was one of my first recipes to become a favorite. When I couldn’t keep pace just eating fresh rhubarb with an especially large crop, I’d freeze bags of 4 cups of diced rhubarb so I could make the cake or a new recipe for bars during the winter.
A lovely couple, Ed & Phyl Hopper were on my list to visit a couple times a month for several years when I was parish visitor. One day they were laughing as I was reminiscing about my love for fresh rhubarb as a kid. Phyl piped up, “we’ve always enjoyed rhubarb sauce. I used to make it all the time when the kids were home. I’m surprised you don’t make it since you’re such a rhubarb fan.” Told her I’d never heard of cooking rhubarb to make a sauce (wouldn’t it have to have a lot of sugar)? The next time they were on my visiting list I brought them a package of diced rhubarb from my freezer. Dang, you’d thought I’d catered them a 5 course meal! Plus she still had to cook it. Four cups of rhubarb. Frozen. Who knew how happy that could make someone? From then on I brought along a package of rhubarb, it was no big deal.
Ed and Phyl ended up moving a hundred miles east to the Lansing area to be near their daughter as they grew more frail. When I drove to Jackson to visit my kids, Ed & Phyl’s assisted living place was 10 miles out of the way, so I often stopped to see them. They were taking most their meals in the dining room instead of cooking, so I never brought them rhubarb again which always made me feel bad. I should have learned how to make sauce and brought some for them, but I never did, just grabbed some cookies or sweet breads out of the freezer.
I’m constantly thankful for the amazing/mundane moments I remember and forever grateful for my super sized storage bin which resides from my nose northward. While much of the space is taken up with useless dribble, the silly, heartfelt, poignant, painful, tear producing life events remain vitally important to me. Many have been there over 6 decades, others like the Hopper’s only a decade or 2. (While what I ate for lunch yesterday is forever gone. Meh, I’ve still got the pertinent stuff). You might want to heed this advice. I’m not suggesting you need to blog, but I’m strongly encouraging you to write your story down. Buy a cheap notebook, jot down memories you had when you were young or something significant that happened last month. The special times way back with your grandparents, classmates, kids, friends, spouse and parents. The not-so-great days when all you could muster was a shower and clean clothes. Start documenting the days of your lives. For when we can no longer remember…