By Lindsay Courcelle
It’s mid-March and I’m daydreaming of the plants that will pop out of the ground as spring arrives. The snow pack hides a smattering of perennial food plants at our house including strawberries, elderberries, horseradish, and herbs like thyme, oregano, and echinacea. But what I am most excited for is the garden beds that will be bursting with reddish stems and crinkly leaves once spring arrives: rhubarb.
Our rhubarb came from the homestead site of my husband Scott’s great-great grandparents, Angelo and Stefania Carrara. Both Angelo and Fanny immigrated from Italy in the early 1900s, marrying in Shrewsbury in 1910. It just so happens that Fanny and I share a birthday, October 1st, and this was the day that they chose for their wedding, when Shrewsbury’s maples must have been vibrant reds and yellows.
It was around this day last year when Scott and I made one of our semi-annual trips to his ancestor’s home place, just a few miles down the road from our house. The land is no longer occupied, and the owner lives out of state. What once was a homestead with gardens and dairy cows now appears to be an overgrown meadow dotted with trees, sitting on a hill above Johnson Pond.
We’d found the rhubarb four years ago when we explored that spring. Though there are no buildings left on the site, a quick walk around led us to what must have been a kitchen garden full of rhubarb. Scott dug up some of the roots to transplant at our house, and that is the rhubarb that now grows outside our own kitchen window.
To think that we eat from the same rhubarb plant that nourished his ancestors one hundred years ago is somewhat mind-boggling, but it is the truth. Throughout the growing seasons, we’ve visited the land to explore the living food legacies of Angelo and Fanny. We’ve picked their plums and sour cherries, and tried all of the apples growing on site.
Apples were on our mind last October but what we discovered was even more exciting. As we were picking, I noticed a vine climbing up the apple trees, it’s tendrils poking out into the blue sky. It was filled with plump, purple grapes. These were not the wild grapes that are tiny and tart, but instead, an old cultivated variety like a concord grape, with a sweet taste and larger size. We knew that these must have been an important staple for Scott’s Italian ancestors, who most definitely drank jugs of wine made from their juice.
We started picking, amazed at our discovery. As we wandered through the trees, tracing the vines and their fruits, I came upon a boulder that was hidden from sight. Our puppy found this rock pretty exciting, and decided to stand upon it as we picked grapes, surveying the scene and soaking up the autumn sunlight. I imagined Angelo and Fanny sitting on the boulder, eating grapes, enjoying the sun a hundred years ago.
When our baskets and bellies were full of grapes, we returned home and set to work making juice, straining out the seeds and skins. Our finished product was a gallon of grape juice, which has spent the winter in our freezer waiting to be turned into jelly or syrup. That project is on the docket this month, while the snow melts and before farm work fills our days entirely.
There is something special about food and how it connects people, both in present day and across generations. When we plant perennial food crops like berries and fruit trees, we think about them bearing fruit one hundred years from now. We will never know the person who stumbles upon our rhubarb patch in the year 2114. Maybe our great-great grandchild of the future will discover it one spring day and be nourished in body and soul by our own living legacies.
Lindsay and her husband Scott own Alchemy Gardens, a farm business growing vegetables, herbs, and starter plants. Learn more at www.AlchemyGardensVT.com.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.