This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
White celery. Dirt bleached. Not as stringy as its green progeny. But sweeter. Fresh. Crisp. A class act. In Utah's agricultural heydays of the 1940s, apium graveolens var. dulce (celery) was the cr me de la cr me of crops rising from the acumen of Japanese laborers who envisioned a future in farming.
Kichibei Matsumori departed Hiroshima in the 1910s for San Francisco en route to Utah believing that money could be plucked from trees. "That was his first impression," says his son Jim Matsumori. After stints of work replacing broken railroad ties and putting in pipelines for culinary water systems, the elder Matsumori set his sights on vegetables.
From the onset, most Issei (Japanese immigrants to America) grappled with countless challenges. An 1887 federal law, still on the books, precluded noncitizens from owning land. The Japanese Exclusion Act of 1924 sorely limited immigration; and unsavory 1911 and 1943 real-estate policies discriminated against "members of any race or nationality" deemed detrimental to property values.
In response, Japanese farmers rented land on a prayer and handshake that their lease would not be broken by the landlord after successful planting seasons. Eventually, they were recognized as pioneers in truck farming, innovators in vegetable husbandry and profitable investors in Utah's growing fields.
Growing everything from cauliflower, dry onions and broccoli to white celery, Jim recalls working alongside his parents, double-cropping acreage ("but never celery"), weeding, harvesting and bunching vegetables for sale. He describes colorful scenes of downtown Salt Lake City's vigorous grower's market filled with hundreds of stalls, fresh produce, farmers, trucks, truckers and green grocers bidding on goods to trek throughout Utah and surrounding states.
It was then the esoteric white celery created a stir and added to the renown of other Japanese-grown celeries celebrated during Utah Celery Week. For years, orders for the delicacy came in from all over the country and the Matsumoris sent seasonal gift boxes to Utah Gov. Herbert Maw and Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Truman.
It was a wonder crop, but unlike most other vegetables, a gamble to grow. Labor-intensive, land-grabbing, and complicated, white celery required the fresh chill of northern Utah air, a long growing season, copious water, and the right type of heavy, black soil to prevent heartburn and failure.
In spring, the Matsumoris germinated celery seeds in long, deep hotbeds, packed with two feet of manure on the bottom, heated by glass sashes on top and covered at night with straw. The seedlings were then hand-planted every six to eight inches in wide rows six feet apart. During September, the Matsumoris piled dirt up the sides of the celery using a two rope-handled, 18-inch-wide wooden hoe. "If you freeze the tender plants, they'll bolt - go to seed," Jim explains, "but if you bank them up before the weather cools, you'll cook their hearts."
Mounds of soil were built up creating "trenches as high as two feet from the ground," until the entire crop was covered with dirt, motivating Mother Nature's bleaching process. By mid-November, a crucial time when frost and soil-depth combine to sweeten the celery's heart, the plant was dug up and re-buried in deepened rows for late winter harvesting, sometimes accomplished under December snowdrifts.
Using a U-shaped, three-foot blade attached to horses (later replaced by a high-centered tractor), the way I see it, harvesting was done in-the-blind. "You listened carefully," Jim says. "The cutter would go along the bottom of the deepest part of the row. If you went too deep, you heard nothing and cut nothing. If you went too high, you'd hear a whining sound and know you slashed your stalks."
Growing white celery is a lost art. Jim, now 83, had long turned from cultivating crops to land development. Yet sitting in his South Jordan home, you can see him in the fields, listening.
"When you hear that swoosh-swoosh sound," he says, remembering, "you know you've done it right."
Eileen Hallet Stone is co-author with Leslie Kelen of Missing Stories: An Oral History of Ethnic and Minority Groups in Utah.