Giant cabbages steal the show at state fair

Cheeseheads have Green Bay; Cabbageheads have Palmer'

Posted: Tuesday, September 03, 2002

PALMER - 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.

Joyce Heiber, a Princess Cruise tourist watches some entries dwarf her 6-year-old daughter Kate. They are pumped.

"It just worked out that we came on cabbage night," she says.

Cheeseheads have Green Bay. Cabbageheads have Palmer. Friday gave them 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 are 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 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, $2,000, $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 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.

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 unmistakable.

Now, 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."

Distributed by The Associated Press.

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