Peter Rabbits of the world have lost a good friend

October 26, 2012
Bob Russell found his calling, and made a living, as a master gardener. BY CLIFF DIVER

Bob Russell died suddenly last week at 63, far too young for a man of so many talents and so much love. With his straw hat, and dirt in the creases of his hands and forehead, Bob was the kind of man that Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit dreamed about. A Mr. MacGregor figure if ever there was one.

He was one of Sussex County's most illustrious master gardeners, growing tasty lettuces and specialty vegetables cherished by the progressive chefs of the region. Two of those chefs, Brian Goldfarb and Henry Hirsch, provided me with a partial list of some of the restaurants that Bob supplied: The Back Porch, Square One, Chef's Table, Ground Zero, LaLa Land, Celsius, Nage, Sydney's Side Street, Espuma, Zebra, Chez La Mer, Garden Gourmet, Kindle and Eden. “The Rehoboth 'boom' may have happened without Bob, but his influence on the early restaurateurs surely helped shape that boom in a remarkable, unforgettable way,” said Hirsch. “Add that to the list of his great contributions to each of our lives, and the sum of his time with us was remarkable.”

It's a fact that Bob truly pioneered the concept of farm-to-table in this part of the world, before farm-to-table became an important movement in the culinary industry. He hand-picked his coveted bags of mixed greens with great care. His wife and partner of several decades, Barbara, delivered them fresh to restaurants whose clientele knew that any meal that began with such exquisitely fresh and flavorful lettuces would be memorable throughout.

Bob tested his tender lettuces with the same appreciation a vintner brings to his wines and loved to see the reaction on the faces of people who put the leaves in their mouths and tasted flavors like lemon and licorice where they would never have imagined them to be. To Bob, the produce that came forth from God's green earth with the practiced cultivation of a hard-working gardener was nothing short of miraculous.

Of course, Bob had a love/hate relationship with the rabbits, groundhogs, turtles, deer and other innocent creatures of the woods. They relished his lettuces, vegetables and edible flowers as much as the cash-paying human customers that allowed Bob and Barb to make a living doing what they love.

He would walk out to his expansive garden with rifle in hand, but most of the time he would just growl and shake it at the furry-tailed critters scampering away.

Bob Russell understood the attraction and knew the contented and soporific bliss that accompanies a belly filled with sweet lettuces.

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