In an old vaudeville country rube routine the straight man says, “Think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?” The top banana replies, “Not if it’s in cans!” Now, doesn’t that make you want to slap your knees and hoot and howl.
On the east side of my garden cabin, between the raspberries and the neighbor’s caragana shrubs, my dad planted rhubarb. Those who grow rhubarb know that for the average family, one plant will provide all the rhubarb one healthy family can be forced to consume. My dad liked to garden. Years ago he planted five varieties of rhubarb whose succulent crisp stalks run from deep red, through shades of pink to light green.
So I have rhubarb, glorious rhubarb, abundant rhubarb, too much rhubarb. I considered taking out all but two clumps, a green and a red, although one plant is more than sufficient for my needs. However, I know that it is never possible to eradicate every vestige of root. Just a smidgeon of hardy root will cower, hidden in the ground until next year, when it will miraculously shoot forth into an entire new plant. Rhubarb originated in China, caravanned through Europe and sailed to North America by boat. I am firmly convinced, that in seeking to reconnect to its roots, my rhubarb has delved through the center of the earth and emerged somewhere on the other side of the globe, where a Chinese family reaps the bounty from my sister plants.
Every year in early spring I await my first taste of crisp, tart, mouth-watering rhubarb, chop, chop, into the crust and out of the oven, beautiful bubbling pie. When I was a child we called it “pie plant.” My grandparents used it for its restorative medicinal properties. The leaves are poisonous but so sour there is little danger you or I would eat them. We canned finely chopped stalks in quart jars and lined the cellar with ruby-fruit in a row. In my garden, rhubarb is the first fruit of the year, the first harvest. I gently grip the long stalk low to the ground, pull it from its casing, and whack off the giant green leaf. It falls to the ground where I leave it to decompose.
The more I harvest, the more the mother-plant produces. Nothing seems to daunt rhubarb, neither freeze nor snow nor rain nor drought. It dies back with the first hard frost, then springs forth to yield from early May through late September. This happens to be a great year for rhubarb. One day the tender shoots poked through the snow and then, overnight it seemed, stalks shot up past my knees, with leaves the size of elephant ears. Every morning I bring an armload of rhubarb into my kitchen. I make rhubarb pies, pineapple-rhubarb sauce to dribble over ice cream and cinnamon-rhubarb sauce to serve with waffles. I mix it with other fruits, dried, frozen and fresh, cranberries, raisins, strawberries, peaches, apples, oranges and mangoes, for pies and jams. I strain the juice for jelly. Out of my oven rolls a procession of pies, cakes, tarts, cobblers, crumbles, scones and bar cookies.
I have invented recipes for rhubarb salsa, chutney, pickles and relish. I hide it in soups. I chop it fine and roll it into dough for cinnamon rolls. Rhubarb is especially toothsome served with venison or pork. (I’ve been told rhubarb makes a fine wine but I would probably produce a batch of vinegar, though that might not be a bad thing.) This year I have thrust bundles of rhubarb on friends, neighbors and passing strangers. Like the desperate zucchini grower, I have developed a certain gleam in my eye.
Yesterday’s hail storm shredded my tallest rhubarb leaves and dimpled many of the stalks. I’m afraid the damaged spots will turn soft and those stalks will spoil, so I’ll harvest them this morning. I’ll chop it and bag it and stash it in the freezer for winter treats. In another week or two, I’ll stroll out to the rhubarb patch and find another crop of tall, juicy stalks, hankering to be made into pies.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after recently returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)