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Monday, June 28, 2010

A Rhubarb Over Rhubarb


According to A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th ed., p.974; def.4) a “rhubarb” is a “rumpus, a ‘row; a loud, confused noise….” I know the word is used in baseball, especially when there is an altercation between player, manager, and umpire or the two opposing teams themselves when the benches clear and someone throws a punch. Then there’s a “rhubarb” on the field. I did not know, however, the word “rhubarb” exists in theatrical slang where it is used both as a noun for “fracas, rumpus, brouhaha”and a verb: “rhubarbing,” when actors offstage intoned the word loudly three times at intervals and out of sequence to simulate mob noise. Repetition of this sonorous word, apparently, created an effect much the same as the angry murmurings from a distant and threatening crowd.

Here in the Valley  we prefer Webster’s definition: “…a plant having large leaves with succulent petioles often used as food.” Yes, we prefer to eat our rhubarb, not create a row about it, and that’s been pretty much my rhubarb experience here--EXCEPT for one incident a half dozen years ago when I had a near rhubarb about my rhubarb.

Rhubarb thrives on fertilizer. Apply the stimulant liberally in the spring and one plant alone will supply the Valley folk with pie for the season. In fact as the summer progresses, I occasionally douse my rhubarb with a watering can full of fish fertilizer—a thank-you, if you will—for yielding up its bounty to pies. Back in the day when the by-products of the Valley dairy industry were separated from the “green tea,” and accumulated in a huge heap beneath the separating machine at the Werkhoven dairy, I would make a pilgrimage, usually late March, to this enormous pile of poo and haul two or three loads to my garden plot: “For land’s sake,” you might say. “Yes,” I reply. The first three of four shovel loads  of organic were always for the rhubarb. These I flung liberally on the rhubarb patch, the rhizomes of which would later transform into those “succulent petioles often used as food.” This pungent poo metabolized into spring and summer pies and tangy sauce for ice cream.

About six years ago when it was time to prepare the garden for its summer crop, Gladys and I happened by the cement bunker, home to that prodigious pile of poo and were surprised to find it poo-less, empty, right down the bare cement. “Where’s the poo!” I thought. A few days later Gladys and I happened upon Andy Werkhoven returning to the barn after lunch. “What’s going on with the manure (‘muhnurh,’ in Werkhoven vernacular)?” I asked. Andy told me the separator had broken down, a part was on order, it might be two-three weeks. “But if you’d like to get started right away,” he said, “You see that pile over there?” I looked off in the direction he pointed. Behind his brother Steve’s house I could see a huge, black mound of  something. “Some good compost there,” Andy continued. “You’re welcome to take what you want.” I thanked him for the offer and we continued on.

Early afternoon the next day I loaded the pitchfork and shovel in the truck and headed for the Valley. Down Steve’s driveway to that dark berm of “good compost.” As I drove alongside the pile, immediately I noticed something was amiss. Salted throughout the rich-looking soil were shards of white I recognized right off as bones. Big bones. Some shovel shaped; others thick of shank with big knobby knuckles like clenched fists of bone at each end; vertebrae clusters like big crystals of rock salt in the black earth. Here a hoof. There a hoof. A large bone lined with teeth reminded me of Samson’s tiff with the Philistines. And at the far end of the pile, toward the base, I noticed a leg and a hoof protruding post-like from the dirt. “Eerie,” I thought, as a distinct feeling of uneasiness settled into my own bones.

But as long as I was here...and the pile did look promising …after all Andy said, “Compost…help yourself.” I drove to the opposite end of the pile, away from the rigor of the leg and hoof and careful to discard any “solids” from each shovel load, I began to load the truck. Quickly; I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Back at the house I pull alongside the rhubarb plant and liberally shovel on the spring tonic. The rest I spread across the garden patch. Only one hoof in the entire load.

Three or four weeks pass. The rhubarb stalks sprout. Big leaves unfurl. A week later they turn bright red. Next week they wither. The following week they die. In less than a month my rhubarb pies, my sauce, are only memory. In their stead is a small crater. Distraught, I stand beside it, stare into the void looking for signs of life. Nothing. Just rot. Just decay. Just oblivion.

What I was told was a source of good compost was actually a “Pile of Death,” a grave for composting the dairy departed. A mound for the ghosts of milking stalls past. Hydrogenated lime applied to accelerate the decomposition of the carcasses had fried my rhubarb, dissolved the tubers, an entire pie season lime-blasted.

In times of trouble we turn to family. In times of grief for solace, we embrace those closest to us. Out of extreme human kindness a Good Samaritan will donate a kidney to a stranger. In times of rhubarb deprivation we turn to those whose plants are vigorous and thriving.  So I turned to my environmentally sensitive friend Nancy L. Thanks to Nancy the garden has a healthy patch of rhubarb. Thanks to her I can again turn the oven to 425 preheat, pie baking temperature. Thanks to 1st rhubarb pieNancy L our kitchen once again smells of fresh baked rhubarb pie. And if Andy Werkhoven offers compost from the “Pile of Death,” turn to him and respectfully say, “Andy, thanks, but no thanks.”

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Valley Serves Up Breakfast…

Pancake alert!

No bowl of soggy Grape Nuts to start off the day this morning. Today I will be breakfasting at one of the Valley’s finest eating establishments: the Tualco Grange. In these latter days of June Valley strawberries are at their peak, both time and berries ripe for the bi-annual Tualco Grange pancake breakfast. The sign at the corner of Tualco and SR 203 announces the traditional spring repast. It will be a strawberry breakfast, the first of two annual breakfasts hosted by the Grange. The second, the applesauce breakfast, will be served in October .

This morning, the twenty-sixth of June, I am taking my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L. out to breakfast. Gladys and I are scheduled to meet her at the Grange at nine o’clock sharp, but we are scarcely out of the driveway when I see someone pedaling my way along the shoulder. I can tell by the distinctive weave of her path, it is Nancy L. She must be hungry and anxious to get at those pancakes—has even, I soon discover, brought her own fork. The breakfast crowd at the Grange is in for some stiff competition from Nancy L. But a lucky crowd they are this morning: Nancy decides to opt for the Grange silverware and stows the fork in her car.

Nancy L and fork in the road

We arrive at the Grange parking lot to find it nearly full for the morning’s third seating. Our sprint to the Grange has certainly whetted our appetites. Now if we can just find a place at the table. I pose Gladys for the bi-annual photo op by the sandwich board. Then we park our rides around back and head for the entrance.Pancakes for Gladys

When we open the door, the smell of coffee and griddled pancakes pushes back. The place was a’bustle: the breakfast crowd humming with Valley chit chat; the kitchen staff in a dither as if they were the ones on the hotplate. Cooks at work A scene, it was, Norman Rockwell-ish, (without the aroma of coffee and griddlecakes, of course; and the wait staff would have presented as blurry brush strokes).    

Breakfast crowd

A gentleman at the pay table looks away from his plate long enough to take my money: ten bucks for two plates, an inflated tab over years past when I seem to remember two, then three-fifty a plate. (Those were the days that father and daughter would breakfast at the Grange together, a little quality time over hotcakes and sweet strawberries.) From the looks of the crowd, we were all the late risers, the weekenders. The farmers had taken the first seating, most likely had a herd of cows milked and a few acres plowed by now; breakfast lingering as a memory beneath their belts; lunch poised on the horizon.  

No menus at the Tualco Grange strawberry breakfast, no decisions to make; everyone is served the same fare in the same portions, regardless of child Child's portionor senior: a mini cup of orange juice, a heaping spoonful of scrambled eggs, a slice of ham, two hotcakes—and the main attraction of the spring, a bowl of fresh, sliced Valley strawberries. And my coffee cup never seems to empty. All this served up to Nancy and me by the vivacious Betty, all cheer and smiles.Betty servesBetween bites Nancy L and I chatter about this and thatNancy L worries a pancake. Just light topics, though; the pancake breakfast is just not the proper forum for things political. This delicious breakfast needs to settle gently.

Now over the years I have spent considerable time in the kitchen and am always on the lookout for some handy gadget to make my efforts at the kitchen range more efficient and pleasurable. And for that reason I couldn’t help but notice the fellow on the pancake detail and his batter helpmate. What a slick little gizmo he wields over the griddles (yes, there are two griddles dueling away in the Grange kitchen this morning). Chef Wally A push of a plunger and a pancake-size dollop of batter drops in a perfect circle on the griddle and sizzles there. Griddleman Wally demonstrates, tells me the device originally was put to task as a doughnut maker. Pancake gizmoNow it serves a higher purpose and with Wally at the plunger, this practical appliance follows the pancake breakfast circuit in the Valley and the local Senior Citizens’ center.

At Swiss Hall Gladys and I, breakfast-sated, part ways with Nancy L  and wobble our way homeward, Gladys packing a bit more weight than when she was outward bound. Well, she has her thoughts, I’m sure. And I don’t need to know them. Me? I’m already thinking about those Fall pancakes and that delicious applesauce.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Entering Limited Access Area…


The green meanies are back again, bent on raising more havoc with the traffic. The west shRanier in Juneoulder of SR. 203 between Tualco Road and our driveway has a new gravel roadbed and is prepped for paving. Our regular route along this shoulder was glutted with the meanies, their machines of destruction, and traffic cones. I did not want to chance another showdown between Gladys and Mari, TSI’s bossy munchkin of a flagger, so I transported my ride south to the old Honor Farm, parked across from Crescent Lake, and entered the Valley from the South.

No one was hitting drives at Sky River Driving Range. For some reason I have collected a number of golf balls from my Valley walks and have been meaning to return them one at a time to the Driving Range. So far all that’s happened is a reminder every time I pedal by the range to remember to bring a golf ball on my next ride.

Also no one out in Broers’ berry field on this rare sunny day in a month some have termed “Junuary.” I’m surprised the field is vacant. Lots of tasty red bounty out there. And tomorrow the rains return. Gladys and I ride to the Tualco/203 intersection where the green meanies are staging their uproar. Time to turn and retrace our route south through the Valley.

No sign of aliens this morning. In fact at this early hour of the day not much was happening yet. A slow pace out here; even the dairy cows were leisurely “at grass.” Contented ruminants they are, slowly churning the Valley’s pastures into milk. They hardly notice us as we roll past. I can’t imagine cows having problems with hypertension. Well, perhaps a slight rise in pressure prior to milking time. Paul “Brandon” Bischoff was tending his lettuces. He responded to my shout with a “Hi, Terry,” and a friendly wave—then glanced nervously over his shoulder in the direction of his garlic patch. Back at Crescent Lake I load Gladys for the return drive.

I arrive at the Ol’ Homestead to discover huge machines intent on demolishing the ramp to our driveway. As I watch, it’s like they’re peeling away Time: I hauled gravel for that ramp from the base of High Rock years ago before the area became the suburbs. Two layers of asphalt lateIt's all their asphaltr, we’ve reverted to gravel again. Until the meanies finish their upgrade, heed this virtual warning sign for our driveway: “Primitive road. No warning signs. You are entering a limited access area.” If you come for a visit, please enter with caution.Limited access

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Best of All Possible Berries


Izaac WaltonHandful of sweetness in The Compleat Angler, his laudatory book on the glories of fishing (next only in popularity to the Biblical account of  big fish and fishing [Jonah, 1:17; Chapter 2 ]) stated": “…we may say of angling as Dr. Boteler said of strawberries: ‘Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did….’” Now those green marbles I mentioned in an earlier post are flushed with red and bursting with Valley sweetness.

Last Sunday Gladys and I visited the strawberry field at Broers Farms. The previous day had been warm and sunny. In appreciation the berries had plumped and reddened. If you have never had a ripe Berry Pickersstrawberry plucked fresh from the vine, you have yet to taste heaven. Those luscious looking berries on display in the grocery produce section? Those beautiful hunks of berry flesh out of California, berries big as summer plums ? Oh, the false advertising!  “Beauty is as beauty tastes,” is what I say. Only a bath in dark chocolate can give those massive fruits sweetness and flavor. Oh, the disappointment!

The berries are just coming on, and I have to row hop to seek ripe fruit. The day is cool and overcast, not good weather for bringing sugar and color to the berries. Broers' Berries I resist the temptation to eat a berry. As in the potato chip proverb: “You can’t eat just one,” vine ripened strawberries are addictive. If I’m going to pick enough for strawberry jam, strawberry pancakes, strawberry shortcake, strawberry syrup, strawberry ice cream, strawberry scones, strawberries ‘n cream, strawberry-rhubarb  pie, I can’t succumb to tasting the goods. Fortunately the recent heavy rains discourage temptation; the grime of the field coats the berries, and strawberry-flavored sand, though tasty, is hardly tooth-friendly. Row hopping through the field takes me about an hour to pick a level flat of berries. In the midst of such plenty, one shouldn’t forget that picking is but half the labor: berries need to be washed, stemmed, and otherwise eaten fresh or somehow preserved. “Just one more,” I tell myself as I discover yet another juicy morsel beneath the leaves. Finally restraint, “Stop, already,”and the flat is ready for weighing.  The fruits of my morning’s labors: eight pounds of ruddy sweetness. Gladys and I wend our way back home where I exchange her for the truck so I  can retrieve my morning’s treasure.A morning's work 

I return and pay Ginnifer the berry lady twelve dollars for the produce,  a price more than fair for such bounty. 

Valley Berries

The family farm is a dying species, and I think how lucky we are to have a place in the Valley to pick fruit fresh from the field, to see how it’s grown and ripened on the vine, to select and pluck the fruit you want. So much more rewarding than picking up a clamshell of bland enticements from the supermarket. “Take the ‘straw’ out of ‘strawberry,’” I say, and replace it with flavor, replace it with sweetness, replace it with the goodness of the Earth.

I’ll close this post with a recipe: How to Make a Strawberry.

Plant an acre or two of berry plants.

Add the following:

Dark, rich Tualco Valley soil

A Month of Tualco Valley sunbeams

Rain: shower lightly, please

Bushels of kisses from Valley bees

Mix ingredients in equal proportions. For best results, stir in extra sunbeams.


If you don’t have a green thumb, Broers Farms will cater your vine-ripened strawberries. Get them while you can. Strawberry fields might last forever, but the season and its bounty doesn’t. Call Broer Farms and ask for Ginnifer or Ed: (360-794-5778).  The Berry Lady

The Berry Man

Monday, June 14, 2010

Alien Encounters of the Valley Kind…Or The Day Gladys Stood Still

Ranier in June

There are aliens in the Valley. I have seen them. Furthermore I knew they were coming. Strange hieroglyphs at the corner by Swiss Hall signal their arrival. It is time for the annual alien migration and ultimate meeting with the Mother Ship. In pods (or do they come from pods?) of a half dozen or fifty the aliens drift south through the Valley heading for their final rendezvous at Mt. Ranier—or Planet Bellevue.

Aliens in the Valley

HieroglyphsThese extraterrestrials have bulging heads, wear flashy unitards, and glide through the Valley on sleek EEMs (Earth Exploratory Modules). The ETs whiz along, resolve rigid on their faces. That Mother Ship will not wait for stragglers. And for that reason most pass silently, intent on destination, not journey. Some, the stragglers perhaps, chatter with each other as they glide by. Their words are lost in the slipstream. I don’t believe these lycra-swaddled beings have names but are identified by numbers, much the same way the Valley dairy cows wear numbered ear tags. The numbers are displayed on their EEMs or backs where they flap jauntily in the back draft. Alien invasion

With this alien invasion the Valley seems crowded and hurried this morning. Fortunately these ETs aren’t, hostile, just stand-offish. They scarcely notice Gladys and me as we putter along the shoulder in our typical leisurely fashion. A nod every once in a while. That is it.

On our return Gladys and I encounter a small pod of ETs at the entrance to Ed’s driveway. They have stopped to hydrate. Up the road some of their clan (wearing yellow and green unitards) are tending to an EEM with mechanical problems. Gladys and I stop for a close encounter of the friendly kind. “Greetings, Earthling.” (Ah, they speak our language.) I learn the pod belongs to the clan Lakemont Cycle, Planet Bellevue. Gladys doesn’t seem intimidated in the least by their shiny EEMs and has her photo taken with the aliens’ “rides.” One friendly ET offers to take a photo of the author and Gladys posed with his clan, corroborating evidence of aliens in the Valley.

Gladys hangs with Lakemont

The author and Lakemont

The aliens are gone from the Valley now. Safely harbored in the Mother Craft, I suppose. But before their departure, they leave this Earthling these parting words: “On your left!” With a flash of color and back wash of sweat—or is it sunscreen—they shoot by, passing Gladys like she was standing still.On your left

Friday, June 11, 2010

Saddlesore in the Valley

June Delphinia

It seems there’s always a price to pay for infidelity. The cost for me was a genuine pain in the rear end. In an earlier post I waxed proudly about the make-over Gladys received courtesy of Larry at Courtesy Tire. It was her day to shine, and I didn’t want to overshadow it by bringing up the possibility of a rival.

This all came about because Larry had concerns about the gender of my Valley transportation. Now far be it from me to call Larry a chauvinist, but he seemed unsettled by my touring the Valley on a “girl’s” bike. This I deduced from his offer to perform what in essence was a sex change on Gladys: he volunteered to weld a masculine bar across Glady’s open “V” and transform my demure Miss into a Mr, from a Gladys to a Gladstone. I was shocked at this affront to Gladys’s femininity. “Nothing doing,” I said, “I’m not about to parade any transvestbike out through the Valley.” Larry shrugged and then took a different approach to the situation. Apparently a few years ago, most likely before green became “green,”Larry purchased a bike for his mechanics to ride to the automotive stores, an inexpensive and efficient way, he thought, to shuttle parts from supplier to garage. The mechanics balked and were quick to point out the problem of transporting an engine block, transmission, or exhaust system on the bike’s flimsy luggage rack. A good idea if you were in the courier business; not so  much if you were into heavy metals. The bike went home to Larry’s garage.

Not the least rebuffed by my refusal to let him tamper with Gladys’s sex, Larry decided I needed to replace her with a new bike. It was then he offered to give me the remnant of his “great idea.” I told him, no, I couldn’t be unfaithful to Gladys. That would be infidelity, I said, much worse than lusting in my heart for a sleek, shiny replacement. Gladys might be a plain Jane, I explained, but to me she’s Semper Fi. Larry persisted to the point I felt like a fool: here I was offered a ride that was practically brand new. The tires still had the little rubber feelers on them. Three sprockets and a twist grip shifter boosted Gladys’s gear capability five fold. Hand brakes that didn’t require several feet of forethought before stopping. All this and a brilliant blue paint job to boot. And for a man, a manbike. What sealed the deal, though, was Larry’s caveat that if the bike and I proved to be incompatible, I was welcome to match “Blue”with someone who could really use a bike. The next day Larry called from Courtesy Tire to tell me Blue was there. I drove in, brought him home,  wheeled him into the shed where he stayed until last Saturday.Ol' Blue

I felt I owed Larry for his gift, and making sure Gladys was tucked away unaware behind a closed garage door, I wheeled Blue out of the shed and headed for the Valley.

Immediately I noted differences in the feel of my new mount: the handlebars were lower, for one; I didn’t hold them as much as lean on them. Though shifting was a breeze, I had no idea what gear I was shifting into or out of. I could hear the clicking of the shift change but noticed no difference in leg resistance on the pedals. In fact it was like Blue was trying to outrun me. My feet couldn’t seem to keep up with the pedals. I would shift three or four gears in a row, but the pedals continued their freewheeling ways. Soon it seemed my legs were churning like windmills. What with the stress of leaning on my arms and my feet trying to keep up with the gear changes, my butt was experiencing considerable discomfort from Blue’s narrow seat. By the time I reached Tualco Grange, I was ready to cry “Uncle.” I stopped and gingerly dismounted, wheezing away from the excess exertion.

Five minutes later I headed out again, trying hard to keep up with Blue’s enthusiastic pedals. What a relief to roll into the driveway and get out of the saddle: my arms were sore; my legs were rubber; and Blue’s seat, I discovered later, had raised a blister in a very tender place. Quite a price to pay for infidelity, don’t you think? The blister, in my opinion, seemed a tad bit extreme.

Today Gladys and I rode through the Valley again. Legs and pedals once more in synch; Gladys’s handlebars worked with me and not against; and my butt welcomed the familiar terrain of Gladys’s ample seat. And Blue? He’s back in the shed. And Gladys needn’t know about my brief fling. No more philandering for this guy. It can be a real pain in the butt.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Return of the Native

June Delphinia

Gladys and I were late visiting the Valley today. I spent the morning with daughter Marika in the Wedgwood district of Seattle. She met me at her door decked out in a party hat. In her hand was a birthday donut (pink frosting!) sporting one burning candle. What a surprise! A birthday party for two: Dad and daughter. And a greater surprise: the birthday boy blew out the candle and still had enough wind left for a three hour visit. It’s a cozy house she and Avi have in a cozy, quiet neighborhood. I was given a tour of the cozy backyard which, Marika complained, was far too cozy for slugs and other garden pests that were making sieves of her plantings. Their One Hundred Year Old apple tree bears apples this year despite the bushwhacking I did on it last spring. How do you like them apples, Avi?

Besides, it was raining this morning.

We were just about to swing the corner by Andy Werkhovens’ when I noticed a young fellow bent in the weeding position in the garlic patch in a field by Kelly Bolles’ Organic Farm. He saw me as I rode passed, straightened up, and greeted me by name. There was no mistaking that broad smile and cheerful voice. Sure, there was the facial hair and the bushy ponytail. Older, he was, too, and heavier, covered in places with a veneer of Tualco Valley soil. He was a lot cleaner the last time I saw him, dressed in a white tuxedo in the Tualco Grange parking lot, surrounded by members of his wedding.

That was years ago, and now Brandon Bischoff has returned to the Valley and to a life he says “is a good fit for me”: raising row crops to sell at farmers’ markets. Brandon has leased some acreage from Kelly Bolles and is farming it. Brandon He has returned to what suits him after selling life insurance for a year and a half (until it nearly killed him [my words, not his]). It was the hand of a farmer I shook, a hand with good, honest dirt on it, instead of a hand that once offered a policy filled with fine print, a sometime hedge against death—and probably a Whole Life policy at that.

Brandon and Marika were classmates, graduates of Monroe High School, Class of ‘97. He asked about her, heard she was married he said. I filled in a few details for him. I believe Brandon’s life has taken a few twists and turns  since that happy day at the Grange, and for that reason I didn’t press him for a review. We talked about his crops instead. It’s a fine stand of garlic he has, too. I told him I knew where my garlic for this year’s pickles would come from. Brandon smiled and said he’d give me a good price. I told him not to bother, that I’d come some night and pick what I needed. That broad smile again…. We talked about lettuces, staggered plantings, other vegetable talk until I could see I was keeping him from his work.

So the Valley has sprung yet another surprise on me: Brandon Bischoff, farmer returned to the land. It was good to see him after all these years. I look forward to more visits—that friendly smile-- maybe learn more about his journeys since that day at the Tualco Grange. And as for his garlic, I’m glad it’s there, too. I’ll be glad to pay top dollar for it.