Gardens I have Tended and Visited
I recently visited Cynthia Baldwin and her husband, Don Huggins in Reno. Cynthia and Don have the most marvelous garden beyond which I could not have imagined. Their garden is not only a place for conversation and for pleasure, but a metaphor for the balance they have in their lives. All of the birds in the area know their garden as inviting. Their garden has the best parts of gardens of our youth and new imaginative features. Visiting Cynthia and Don's garden brought my mind's eye back to the gardens of my youth in N.W. Minnesota
When my kids ask me about my favorite foods as a kid, I think of farm fare. We ate a high protein, high carb, and generally a diet marked by many vegetables. I frequently stayed with my grandparents in town during the school year. When I think of joyful repasts of breakfast, I think of my grandparents on my father's side. To understand our diet, I will have to give you some background on my grandparents.
At age seven, my family moved to the farm and my Grandparents to town. We simply switched houses. Grandpa and Uncle Burton helped my Dad install indoor plumbing in the town house. Similar adaptions were made to the farmhouse. We were moving on up! My grandparent's home was formerly a house occupied by the Harvey Diamonds. It was a well-built house but it always seemed to have a mouse or two living in the upstairs. I like the little nooks and crannies of the town house and enjoyed staying there. The house was located right across the street from Diamonds and flanked by the Chester Heatherly home on one side and a house occupied by many families over the year on the other.
My Grandfather was A.H. Rustad Sr, a Norwegian immigrant who came to this country at pre-adolescence. My Grandmother, Margaret Petersen Rustad, was a Danish immigrant. Grandpa's family immigrated to the western part of North Dakota to escape the economic depression that struck Norway in the first decade of the twentieth century. Grandma's family was from a town no one seems to know in Denmark, a town called Enebak. Grandma had no real memories of Denmark. Her family settled in the Minneapolis area before she was 6 years of age. Grandpa and Grandma met when Margaret came to take care of her sister Hannah, in western N.D. Two Rustad brothers married two Petersen sisters. Uncle Ole stayed in western N.D. and became the patriarch of the Western Rustads, while Grandpa moved to Minnesota with his brother Clarence, who played a large role in starting the town of Noyes.
My most vivid memories of my Grandparents are from the little house in Humboldt. Now, I want to take you to the good part, breakfast. Sumptuous breakfasts were a huge event. The typical breakfast involved homemade cereal. I use the word, "homemade" in the most expansive sense. The wheat was grown on our farm and hand-ground by grandpa. Grandpa and Grandma always prepared breakfast together. They were famous for their hearty bread generally served with strawberry jam from Canada. Breakfast consisted of poached egg on toast, wholesome bread, slabs of bacon and eggs. None of these products, other than the jam, were purchased. Butter was invariably and deliciously homemade. On occasion, we would have hash browns. I was served coffee which Grandpa drank to excess! I think that the tradition of the hearty breakfast was close to a religious ritual.
Bread was truly the staff of life and I can assure you that no white-flour was used in my grandparent's bread. Again, the grain was grown on our farm, ground in our mill, and baked lovingly in the Rustad town house. It was a most delicious and wholesome product and always perfect. I never once see my grandparents burn bread and I include here my memories of them baking it on a wood stove! My grandparent's bread was the best home-made bread I've tasted. I've only found bread that approaches the Rustad family bread on one occasion. In Lund, Sweden, I did find a baker whose bread who nearly as good as the Rustad home-made bread. I don't think he used the same brand of lard! My memory is that very little fat was used in any product.
Today, when I go to a supermarket and see all of the super-processed food, I think back to a day when we grew everything and froze nothing. The chief means we had to preserve food was canning not freezing. Freezing food was not common for us until the 1960s. Many of the root vegetables, potatoes, turnips, carrots, etc. were kept in a large metal tub with sand or other coarse material. This, of course, was what is known as a root cellar.
Never did I see my grandparents buy frozen vegetables or even fresh vegetables. We grew our own. I am still trying to revive the memory of how those vegetables tasted. They tasted differently depending upon the season. In the winter, the fruits and vegetables were primarily canned, though on occasion we were mailed avocados and grapefruits/oranges by my grandmother's brother and sister who lived in Florida (Bill and Sorena Petersen).
My grandfather was the gardener in our family. Helen Tri, now in her 80s, has the most humorous anecdote about my Mother's garden. My mother, in contrast to my grandfather, was not a systematic gardener. Her garden was like my study, wily, nily, with no order. Helen still chuckles when she speaks of the disorder of my Mother's garden.
When my grandfather moved to town, he had a small garden across the street from the Tri family. I am certain that this garden was no laughing matter because Grandpa treated the neighbors with its fruits. Grandpa's most extensive garden was on our farm. Grandpa may have retired to the town but he certainly did not retire there. When Voltaire advised us to tend our garden, Grandpa took him seriously. What did Grandpa grow in his garden?
I still cannot bear to buy asparagus. It is not only the high price of asparagus that disgusts me, but the way it is served. We had an entire acre of asparagus and never ate asparagus as tough as that sold in the best organic food stores. Our asparagus consisted of tiny shoots and we had our fill. I mean that literally. We had so much asparagus that we longed for it going to seed. It did every year only to plague us the next year.
A few words about Grandpa's tomatoes are in order. Tomatoes grew lovingly beneath Grandpa's hands. Another fact. We never bought compost. We never bought fertilizer of any kind except for the big crops: wheat and the like. We replenished the life-giving qualities of the garden by good, old fashioned cow manure! One thing about our manure pile. We did not pay for it. It was a byproduct of a winter's worth of munching by cows. We sometimes skiied off our manure pile, though spring skiing was not an option. Manure was to be spread. I think I developed my teaching style through the example of manure. I always enjoyed seeing the manure spreader at work and even the smell of it. Cow manure really is not objectionable. Actually, cow manure was quite useful. In the winter, it formed into frozen weapons. It fertilized our crops. To this day, I still enjoy the smell of fresh manure, as long as it is not the excrement of a pig or chicken. Grandpa spent what we today quality time with me. My earliest memory is having him lift me up. I would waddle behind him pulling a wagon when he did his farm chores.
When Grandpa retired to Humboldt, I never remember a day without him. Grandpa never missed a single day tending the garden on the farm or doing farm chores. While Grandma was helping the neighborhood kids with their homework or sewing, Grandpa was at the farm. I learned a great deal from Grandpa. I learned Norwegian hymns and swearwords, but also about weeding and cultivating a garden. The soil of our Red River Valley is so rich that it crumbles. If it were not for the short growing season, the loam soil would have made all of us rich!
Red River Valley Corn.
Is there anything more delicious in late July and early August as sweet corn. I say sweet corn because there is a lot of corn grown in this country called field corn, which is suitable only for hogs or cattle. I remember going through the seed catalogues with Grandpa picking out varieties of corn. We always settled on yellow corn, though we sometimes tried others. Our rich loam soil produced the best tasting corn imaginable.
My Dad, Rustee, was a ferocious corn eater.
I remember him eating cob after cob balanced on the combine. He was a hard worker and would not stop to eat. He literally ate his corn on the cob while driving a harvesting machine, tractor or combine. I think it was the soil and the well-ripened manure that accounted for such delicious corn. We never used pesticides and therefore had to learn to duck the worms. Grandpa always advised me not to worry too much about tdhe worms. They will not hurt you and are a good source of protein. Tony and I could eat a dozen ears of corn or more at a setting, but were no real competition for my dad who could easily outdistance us.
Cucumbers were a critically important crop because they were the principal ingredient for Grandma Rustad's remarkable bread and butter pickles. Only Alice Giffen made pickles in the same league as my Grandmother's pickles. She also made good dills. Cucumbers, like asparagus, were meant to be consumed when they were young.
Grandpa's other principal crops were lettuce (leaf not head), Cabbage (head not life), Onions, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radishes, rutabagas, and rhubarb. I forgot about the spinach, squash, and turnips. I also wonder whether rhubarb is a vegetable.
One thing in life I ccertain of and that is of the peerless nature of the the strawberry rhubarb on Grandpa's farm (A/K/A as the rhubarb patch) was truly a hardy perennial. That patch still exists thanks to Tony's transplanting a shoot and moving it to his garden in Grand Forks. I last tasted rhubarb from the patch in the summer of 1999 from Tony's garden. Rhubarb, of all perennials, never failed in N.W. Minnesota. Was it the 40 degrees below zero winters or the suffocating summer heat? All I know is that I have a craving for rhubarb. When I taught at the University of Lund in Sweden, I found that the Swedes shared my love of rhubarb. They have a delicious drinkable yogurt with rhubarb. It sounds disgusting but it is one of the truly wonderful products. I drank a quart of rhubarb a week in the Summers of 2002 and 2002 when I lived in Sweden. Why do I like rhubarb? It is the tartness and the colors. Rhubarb should have red as well as green in its foot-long shoots.
My discussion of growing fruits and berries is very short, because fruit did not do very well in our part of Minnesota. We had a wonderful crab apple tree in back of our farm house. The apples were very tart and better for use in sling shots than off the tree. My grandparents made marvelous crab apple pie with whole wheat pie crusts. One exception to the poor fruit harvests was the june berry harvest in of all months, June. Typically, june berry gathering was a project undertaken by my Aunt Dorothy, my grandparents, and cousins.
I include the june berries in this little informal essay on gardens, but we considered the june berries part of our bounty.
June berries were generally found to the east of Humboldt in the wilds of the land beyond Lancaster. We occasionally would search for june berries in North Dakota, but mostly out in the swamps. June berries are quite indescribable. They are more delicious than blue berries and make spectacular pies.
I do not tend my own garden today. It's not just that I can't bear watching all of the other suburbans tend their gardens. I think gardening turns me off. We have neighbors that have ride-on mowers. I see them as farmer wannabes. Each May I choose not to joint the pack of other men in our neighborhood mount their ride-ons: Gentlemen, start your engines! but I still have the most fabulous memories of the gardens of my youth.
Michael L. Rustad
Thomas F. Lambert Jr., Professor of Law
& Co-Director of Intellectual Property Law Program
Suffolk University Law School
Boston, Mass 02114, 617-573-8190
Home Telephone: 802-863-1653