Giant cabbage weigh-off steals the show at state fair

Posted: Wednesday, September 04, 2002

PALMER (AP) -- Excitement runs high as the crowd packs the bleachers. It's raining and many people zip their jackets. It's fair time again in Alaska. Folks left standing huddle round the cattle barriers separating onlookers and contenders.

Inside the ring, contenders eye the cabbages. A camera crew from Home & Garden TV makes the rounds, taping a ''Garden Giants'' show. Kids making their first entry in the juniors division and adults returning for serious money say they can't give up their secrets. A few admirers slip in and wend among entries knee- to hip-high.

''We planned to come to the fair,'' says Joyce Heiber, a Princess Cruise tourist. Some entries dwarf her 6-year-old daughter Kate. The Heibers hail from the Garden State, but they have never seen a cabbage that little Kate couldn't heft in both hands. They are pumped. ''It just worked out that we came on cabbage night,'' Heiber says.

Cheeseheads have Green Bay. Cabbageheads have Palmer. Tonight's their night of nights: the Seventh Annual Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off. DJ John Klapperich of KMBQ, an outsized green leprechaun in turned-up shoes, asks the crowd how many have come from out of state. Dozens of hands shoot up.

Insiders are all asking the same thing: Will Scott Robb beat the Dinkels? A Dinkel walks off with first place year after year, but in 2000, Barb Everingham showed they could be beat with a 105.6-pound state record that still stands.

Everingham sat out this year. There's no denying that Robb, a Palmer nurseryman, is having a great year. He picked up two state records, one for a 47.85-pound cantaloupe that bested his own previous state record by 20 pounds.

Robb and a friend enter bearing an enormous cabbage on a litter fit for a fullback, and the crowd's murmur suddenly hums like a tipped hive. The green monster's wrappers spread wider than a man's arm span, and somewhere, deep out of sight, is a head worthy of a baby elephant. Robb estimates the head is 2 feet wide and with wrapper leaves will top 90 pounds.

Then the giant-killer arrives, wrappers compact, but on a massive head. Heads in the audience swivel to and fro as at a tennis match, trying to gauge which cabbage will win. Ultimately, Robb's 85.6-pound effort falls to 9-year-old Seth Dinkel's 89.9-pounder.

Seth was aided by grandfather and longtime competitor Gene Dinkel. Brenna Dinkel, 7, took third with a 74.3-pound cabbage, helped by her grandfather Don Dinkel, professor emeritus of horticulture and the man who taught his brother Gene how.

The checks are handed out, $2000, $1,000 and $500 respectively, to Seth, Scott and Brenna. The arena is soon awash in competitors' families and fans just looking to get closer to cabbage greatness.

If Alaskans seem gaga for giant cabbages, they're not alone. Don Dinkel tells of a Discovery Channel crew that visited to tape a segment of ''Extreme Alaska.'' They had surveyed viewers on what they would most like to see from Alaska. Sled dog races under northern lights? Grizzlies gaffing salmon on the McNeil River?

''Cabbages were number one,'' Dinkel says, chuckling as if he can't believe it himself.

Maybe it's because something in the American psyche says size matters. But why cabbages? Cool-weather vegetables do well where summers are scarcely warm enough to make a cabbage bolt. But, as Dinkel is first to admit, Alaska has no lock on that. The world record is held by Bernard Lavery from the south of England.

University of Kansas professor James Shortridge, a specialist on how regions are perceived, says that Alaska's cabbage craze is deeply rooted -- and crazy like a fox.

''Right from the purchase of Alaska in '67, the immediate outcry was that it was Seward's icebox,'' Shortridge says. ''Everybody in Alaska did almost anything they could to overcome that image, and the pictures of giant vegetables were just one of the weapons they had.''

Another big weapon was the agricultural experiment stations, which by 1902 began documenting large growth of cool-weather crops in the Interior. Favorable articles proliferated in popular magazines from the 1900s through the 1920s.

''I think a lot of Alaskans were paying journalists,'' Shortridge says. ''You know, 'We'll give you a free trip up here if you write articles.' I can't establish that for sure, but it sure seems to me that that's the case.''

Some of these writers mixed wishful thinking -- slanted, northern light promotes better flavor -- with pure fantasy, like a 1909 account that underground ice acts as a ''sub-irrigation system.'' In fact, experiment stations later proved that permafrost recedes under cultivation. Ground covers are essential to preserving soil moisture here. Soil warming with raised beds or plastic films does more for root growth than ice ever could.

The giant cabbage was an Alaska icon by 1934, when the Matanuska Valley experiment station produced not only cabbages but photos. One now in the archives of the Alaska and Polar Regions Department of the University of Alaska Fairbanks library shows a wheelbarrow-filling cabbage dwarfing a distant farmhouse. The message is unmistakeable.

The 1930s also saw a federal push to colonize the Matanuska Valley with displaced farmers. Right from the start, giant vegetables figured. At the first Matanuska Valley Fair in 1936, Max Sherrod picked up a $2 first prize with a 23-pounder that would lose as a kid's entry today. No less a booster than Col. Otto Ohlson, general manager of the Alaska Railroad, upped the ante by offering a $25 prize in 1941. In 1957, Sherrod took a $50 first for a 61-pounder. Alaska's climate hadn't undergone a magical threefold improvement, but cultivation techniques had.

Sherrod's friendly competition with Matanuska farmer Roy Rebarchek, who set a world record in 1969 with a 73-pounder, would last decades. Filmmaker Joan Juster says Sherrod's eagerness to be interviewed by the National Enquirer no doubt sealed state's image as a producer of cabbages far too large for iceboxes.

Today, when Shortridge asks students to rate states, Alaska lands in the middle. Half still rate it low -- perhaps because of the icebox image -- but the other half rate it high, and that has nothing to do with voluminous veggies.

''The TV show 'Northern Exposure' had a big influence,'' he says. ''They see it as this place of interesting people going at a slower pace and out of the rat race.''

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