May 30, 2012, Updated Jan 09, 2023
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I knew rhubarb from a very young age because there was a huge row of it in the yard behind my grandmother Alice Abowd’s house in Fostoria, Ohio. She and my mother cooked the rhubarb into a sauce in the spring and we ate the sweet pink pleasure with spoons out of the saucepan, sitting at the yellow formica kitchen table. Between that sauce and the table, it was a fantasia of flavor and color of the sort that makes me wonder if this was the seminal experience that inspired my affinity for color, pink in particular.
Rhubarb doesn’t even have to taste as good as it does, when paired with ample amounts of sugar, to make me fall for its sweet-tart flavor. Rhubarb just sitting there looking pretty would do enough to make me call it delicious even if it wasn’t. I’ve always had a thing for pink and green, reaching way back to the days of the preppy handbook and then softening into something else, something more natural like pink English roses and green hydrangea. Or rhubarb itself, which gives us the best of both shades, perfectly juxtaposed. That its leaves are toxic is too delicious an irony not to dwell on now and then, the way we do the thorns of the rose.
It’s rare that rhubarb is going to find itself in anything but a sweetened, cooked down iteration. Almost always eaten in this way, rhubarb was categorized as a fruit long ago here in the U.S., even though its family is truly vegetable. It takes a tough palate to want to eat rhubarb without sugar, let alone raw. Which is why I have not forgotten watching the young, tatooed line cook at Boulette’s Larder pop slices of raw rhubarb into her mouth while she tore up and down the galley filling lunch orders. I expected her to have a pack of cigarettes rolled up on the shoulder of her white t-shirt and some black metal-toe boots to go along with her rhubarb snack.
Rhubarb is tough like that image, and keeps for a remarkably long time in the refrigerator. I’ve had some for 10 days that is still kicking. It’s easiest to slice rhubarb with a very sharp knife because of its pretty but annoying celery-like peel that insists on not being cut through and then curling up like birch bark when sliced. Then again, I can’t think of much that I’ve recommended slicing with anything but a very…sharp…knife.
I try to be concise, I really do, and when I set out to write this little entry about rhubarb I thought it’d be super short and you would be so happy with me for keeping it that way. Then look at me, down the page again, even with all of the edits. I promise that our recipe tomorrow for rhubarb is very, extremely short and sweet. No rolling instructions necessary, and no trip to Lebanon needed to procure fine leaves. Just some rhubarb, rosewater, and a squeeze of lime would be nice too.