Okay, I admit to listening to Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion from time to time. He first caught my attention was when I read an essay he’d written that included the statement that all Scandinavian food is “carrier” food. It’s meant to carry butter, sugar or salt to the gullet.
That had me bent over in laughter. Why? Because I’m of Norwegian ancestry. How Norwegian? Well, my Grandmother Skistad was born in northern Wisconsin (Ladysmith, I believe) but spoke only Norwegian until she left school (in the eighth grade because her father didn’t believe in educating girls) to become a housemaid for a doctor in Eau Claire. Her “yelly yiggled” pretty well. Suffice it to say, I’m Norwegian enough to know I don’t like Lutefisk, but I do love pickled herring, Fattigmans, Spritz Cookies and Lefse. And that Hot Dish is required at Lutheran Church potluck dinners.
Figuring high on the list of all the foods my grandmother taught me to love is Rhubarb. Yes, I’ve even crunched on the raw stalk. It’s not unlike biting into a lemon. But the best thing about rhubarb is the amount of sugar it takes to turn it into the things I love, like rhubarb pie, rhubarb pudding, strawberry rhubarb crisp and, of course, rhubarb yelly and yam. (See above about carrier food–I mean this is one vegetable that lives up to the requirements of Scandinavian cooking.)
So, being such a huge fan of rhubarb you can bet I scanned the local planting guide to see if I could grow it up here when I first moved in. Check! So I bought me a root from a local nursery and planted it along the ditch bank, which has nice, compost-y soil. I put it close but not too close to the water hoping the moist air would mimic that awful humidity they have in Wisconsin, and maybe cut the intensity of our midsummer heat. That plant straggled through the first year and didn’t return. I dug up the root. Oops. It was a soppy mess. I didn’t realize the water saturated the ground so far from the main flow of the ditch. No wonder the grass is always green there, a whole lot greener than over the septic tank, by the way.
The next year I tried again, this time in my upper garden, the one in which my roses are presently going crazy and putting on quite the show for passersby on Page Spring Road. The ground was dryer and I’d amended it well the previous year. Plus there’s partial shade cast by the massive willow tree I’ve pretty much fallen out of love with. What a mess! It’s been poorly trimmed over the years so it lacks shape and is full of dying branches infested with mistletoe. This time, the rhubarb managed to grow big enough the first year to give me 3 stalks. Like I can do anything with 3 stalks of rhubarb. But that was more than I’d gotten from the first plant, so I crossed my fingers and offered up the farmer’s prayer (next year for sure!). Well, next year it gave me nothing but a few stunted leaves that barely made it out of the ground. It’s nothing but a memory this year.
Still, the call of that yelly wouldn’t be denied. Two winters ago, I was perusing a catalog from a huge northern nursery looking for elderberry bushes, which they had for a really decent price. Then I found the Pakistani mulberries–the white ones that have a faint cinnamon taste to them. They were listed in “bush form”. Huh. Bush form. In the Twelfth Century “bush form” is referred to as “coppiced”. That’s when you cut off the developed tree and it grows back all branchy instead of in one trunk. Be that as it may, bush form is the perfect size for the hillside I was filling, the one between the Mason Ditch and my house.
Then I flipped the digital page and there they were. A full page of rhubarb varieties, enough to make my mouth water. I couldn’t help myself. I bought three different varieties. Since everything else was going in the Mason Ditch hillside near the house, that’s where these three roots went, in with the elderberries, French sorrel, fennel and chicory that are presently doing a great job crowding out the original quack grass, thank you very much. I figured the rhubarb would die right away. After all, nothing about that soil or the micro-climate on that hillside fits what that local garden how-to lists for growing rhubarb in this area.
Much to my surprise, my three little plants did far better than I expected last summer, although not well enough to harvest anything. Then again, I guess you’re supposed to wait a few years for the roots to establish before harvesting. That might be why Plant #2 didn’t do that well. I took those 3 stalks.
Then winter came, fast and hard. That first surprise frost took the tops of all my bush mulberries. The elderberries browned, then dropped their leaves and the sorrel disappeared. So did any trace of the rhubarb. With little hope they’d return, I put them out of my mind. When things first started to bud out this spring, I crawled over the awful concrete walls that enclose the ditch side near my house (and make me feel like a queen in her castle–disconnected from the land I rule) and walked the narrow paths I’ve carved into that steep slope over the past five years.
The mulberries lost the tops of their branches, but have grown back strong from their lower halves, even setting on plenty of berries. It turns out that elderberries laugh at the cold. They’ve tripled in size since budding out and will set berries like crazy this year, a year sooner than I expected. Then I remembered the rhubarb. I climbed to the area I’d chosen, pushed aside the grass and the sorrel (it’s another weed like arugula) and there they were, all three of them.
I no longer know what two of them are. Something–snails, gophers, cats, turkeys, who knows–ate the stakes I put in next to those plants. The one doing the best still has its tag: Victoria. It’s already twice the size it achieved last year, sporting three nice long stalks with well-developed leaves and plenty of new leaves. The stalks are a beautiful red hue. Oh be still my heart! Yelly might just be possible this year!
Apricot Rhubarb Yam (makes about 5 pints)
Slightly drain stewed rhubarb to make 20 ounces. Combine with apricot and lemon juice in a pot. Stir in sugar and bring to a roiling boil, stirring constantly. Boil hard one minute. Immediately stir in pectin. Fill pint or cup jars and process in a water bath for 10 minutes (cup jars) or 15 minutes (pint jars)