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The Resplendent Raspberry

By Sue Ommen

Fri, Jul 6th, 2012
Posted in All Columnists

I love raspberries, not only for their sumptuous flavor, but also because I have a history with this lovely berry. I grew up in Hopkins, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities, known then as the Raspberry Capital. Raspberry farms proliferated on the outskirts of Hopkins, supplying an abundance of the delicious crop to the area, and for the yearly Raspberry Festival, our little claim to fame.

As a 10-year-old, I decided to follow in my brother’s footsteps and pick at a raspberry farm. I’d earn a little money and show how responsible I was, an attribute needed to pass one of my dads tests to go swimming with friends at Shady Oak Lake, attended by life guards but no parents. If I remember correctly, we made the huge sum of five cents a quart, an amount that added up during my two-week stint. Remember, a candy bar cost five cents in this era. A bus rounded up the pickers and dropped us at the site. We were given a brief training period and then began the job of picking as fast as possible under the hot sun, without dropping or spilling berries. During a weekend at the height of the season, our families came to help out, making a fun time out of the effort. Jokes were passed back and forth, along with good-natured ribbing as to who could fill a flat fastest.

I only worked the raspberry fields one summer, as most raspberry seasons I stayed with my cousin Patty at my grandparents in Williston Park to pick their crop. We adhered to my father’s philosophy, one for the pot and one for the mouth. Patty and I rambled the area, making forts from tall foliage, hiding from our two much younger pesky boy cousins, and making trips to the little country store for grandma. It seemed a long walk down the dusty road, so we often took the shortcut through a path rumored to be a spot snakes liked to sit in the sun at the entrance.

Everyone knew my mother was terribly afraid of snakes, due to the fact her impish brothers had once stuffed them down her back. None of these local snakes were poisonous, but they grew in size in our minds. One hapless day we had trekked the entire distance to the store and back to the entrance of the shortcut, only to see the fabled snakes sitting there, minding their own business. They were probably more afraid of us than we were of them, but we ran all the way back to the road and home again. I’ve always been fascinated by snakes, but still didn’t want to step over them. Over time I’ve wondered if the snakes were just large branches that turned into the crawly creatures in our minds.

At night, Patty and I slept upstairs under a slanted ceiling and had daily contests to see who could jump their feet high enough to touch the ceiling, a feat that became easier as we grew.

Our grandpa was a small 5’6” mild-mannered man who smoked cigars and made dandelion wine he served at family occasions, giving each child he considered old enough a taste in a shot-glass. During the evening, he taught us how to play poker, using poker chips for currency. He was a carpenter and grew vegetables on their five acres of land. My sister Sharon remembers loading the produce and carrying it to a homemade stand to sell. He didn’t talk much, but had a gentle way about him and we all loved him dearly.

My mother once told us that a man down the road employed migrant workers. My grandfather was always friendly when they walked by. One day a black man stopped and asked grandpa if he could have a drink of water. My grandfather pointed to the cup hanging from a nail above the well and told him he was always welcome to help himself. Later that summer, the man came back with his young wife. My grandfather was not at home, so he told my grandmother the owner had raped his wife and asked if she could help them get away. My aunt Mary said that she was 10 years old and remembers the incident well. Her mother went inside the house, retrieved the money they were saving to work on the house and took the couple down to the bus stop. After paying their fare and giving them additional funds, she helped them get on the bus. This happened in 1940, a time when such things were simply not done.

Another family story tells how my grandmother’s brother, Sippy, short for Joseph, who was a sign maker, recycled some of the discarded wooden signs to use on the house.

Each year at fair time, my grandfather took a number of his grandchildren to witness the wonder of the Minnesota State Fair. It was a grand adventure visiting the animals and exhibits and riding the stately horses on the merry-go-round, each posed in a different riding posture, taking our imaginations on a wonderful gallop while listening to the Calliope music in the background.

As an adult, I was amazed to learn a vast assortment of other rides existed, as we never rode them, nor missed that part of the fairway. At noon, we unpacked the picnic lunch assembled the night before, and stretched our tired legs to eat, oblivious to the wondrous array of fair foods a short distance away. At the end of the day trip, we all searched for the car grandpa lost in the crowd of vehicles each year. Eventually, my brother thought of placing a red ball on the antenna.

Now we grow our own crop of berries, some stock-ordered from a catalog, other plants garnered from friends thinning out their patch. I enjoy plucking the red fruits under the summer sun, soaking up the vitamin D among the bright rays, as well as tasting as I pop them into the pottery bowl for a later treat. In my opinion, there is never too much of a good thing in the form of raspberries, and I relish eating them to my heart’s content. It is our fond hope to have enough this year to freeze a few for raspberry tarts or make raspberry vinegar to cook with, or cordial to sip, all something to anticipate in the winter from the bounty of summer.

Raspberry Torte

For the crust mix 1 cup flour,1/3 cup powdered sugar and one stick butter. Press into 9-inch pie pan. Bake at 350° for 15 min. and cool.

For the topping beat two eggs, 1 cup sugar, 1/4 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon baking power, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Pour over the crust. Spoon 3 cups of raspberries over the custard. Sprinkle 3/4 cup chopped nuts of your choice on top. Bake for 30 min. at 350°.

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