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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.”

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  1. Oh boy. Life without rhubarb is unthinkable. Never the fancy varieties, always good rustic stuff you could use to raise a teepee. Hope yours is reinstated soon.

    Greetings from France, Cro.

  2. Rhubarb has been reinstated for three years now. I'm more cautious about the spring tonic I throw on it. As far as using rhubarb as building material for teepees, I'd much rather construct a delicious pie from the stalks. At least a half dozen this year to date. Thanks for your concern. T.Johnson

  3. I'm hoping any hoof remnants didn't seep into this year's crop. I still have a frozen bag of the good stuff, just waiting to be baked in to a wonderful pie with a HOMEMADE crust!! Hush on the compost pile... :)