I still remember the first time I ate rhubarb. I was around 10 years old and we were visiting my Uncle Al and Aunt Frances in New Jersey. Uncle Al was actually my great uncle, my Hungarian grandmother’s brother. Uncle Al and Aunt Frances lived in a white rancher on five acres and the back half of the property was covered with gardens.

All I distinctly recall, however, is the rhubarb, and Aunt Frances’ raspberries (the descendants of which came with me when my husband and I moved into our first house). Her raspberries were some perfect variety; fragrant, plump and sweet — like eating burgundy-colored roses.

But the rhubarb! It was plain, cut in small bites and stewed in sugar, served slightly warm. We sat in Aunt Frances’ brilliantly white dining room with a white tablecloth and were served pinkish-red rhubarb in white china bowls with white cloth napkins. I can recall the first taste — tangy bitterness transformed with the pink sugar-sauce into the most delicious treat I’d ever had. I ate two bowls.

This time of year, as we breathlessly await fresh summer produce (well, I do), my childhood memories come flooding back. The first ripe tomato! Cucumbers still warm from the sun! Fresh corn on the cob, like eating pure sugar! Sweet corn was one thing my mother didn’t grow. She tried for several years and gave it up to the raccoons, who, incidentally, eat sweet corn the same way we do.

During sweet corn season, we ate fresh-picked corn almost daily. And when I say fresh-picked, I mean picked that day, bought from a roadside stand. This was back in the day when you couldn’t purchase corn in a grocery store; you had to go to a farmer’s market, or to your neighbor’s roadside stand. My mother knew everyone who had a corn stand.

As I’ve written before, my mother was one of those people who was a purist about food. If she couldn't grow it, make it, bake it or can it, we didn't eat it. Her rules extended to garden produce as well.

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You had to eat sweet corn on the day it was picked. Tomatoes and cucumbers never went into the fridge. I remember bowl after bowl of produce, all different sizes and colors, covering the countertops in the kitchen. Raspberries had to be eaten the day they were picked or they’d be mixed with sugar (macerated) and then refrigerated. Strawberries could sit out a little longer, but they’d eventually be sugared, too.

When tomatoes were in season, we ate them every day. For lunch, tomato and mayo sandwiches, or tomato and cream cheese, or bacon, lettuce and tomato — or just plain tomato with salt. For dinner, sliced tomatoes with salt. The insides of our mouths would get burned from all the acid, but we kept on eating. We gorged on fresh produce all summer.

I still swoon over fresh produce. And my husband will make the drive all the way to the Verde Valley for fresh corn. Of course we eat it the day it is picked.

Lynne Nemeth, executive director of The Arboretum at Flagstaff, is the editor of Gardening Etcetera. To reach her with articles or ideas, please email Lynne.Nemeth@thearb.org.


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