Ingredient: Rhubarb

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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.

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  1. Jerry Wakeen says:

    When we moved to this home 11 years ago we brought rhubarb from the old house, planted it on the hill, too much clay I guess, it didn’t survive and rhubarb I think is supposed to be a rugged plant. This is in Southern Maryland.

    This spring my wife Bev bought a premium rhubarb plant at a reputable local landscaping company, planted it in a level spot at the base of the hill and it started out OK. Then something pulled it out and presumably ate it. All that is left is a hole in the ground.

    In Wisconsin we never had that trouble, it grew so well along side the garage we considered it a given to harvest almost anytime we wished, one of those things you take for granted. We will watch for it in season at the grocery store!
    best, Jerry

  2. Diane Nassir says:

    Never ate rhubarb as a kid, we didn’t grow it in LA, but you took my breath away when you said you thought you would write a short column today about rhubarb–never truncate your work–that would be like not finishing a recipe!

  3. Doris Wieber says:

    I have enjoyed your blog for quite some time. I was given it from a friend, Em Reifsnyder.
    On the rhubarb, the old name for the plant was “pie plant”. It is a little greener than the rhubarb that you can buy in the store, or if you get new plants from a garden center. My daughter and I make rhubard-blueberry jam every couple of years. It can also be bought at the Bavarian Inn in Frankenmuth. Very delicious. Thanks for the interesting messages.

  4. Janet Moore says:

    Ditto all of the above….except for the salt, lol! We divided my moms rhubarb plant between 5 of us. My niece in GR must have the best soil of all. Her piece of tasty delight is like a bush and reaches almost to the windows…with huge leaves. The rest of us are still nurturing our plants and not getting enough stalks for even one rhubarb pie. Guess I will have to bit the bullet and buy some for my yearly Strawberry Rhubarb Pie fix. As always….loved your pic’s and thoughts.

  5. Selene Schulz says:

    Recently made rhubarb jelly in 1/2 pt. fat and sassy jars. It not only tastes great, but looks so pretty. We gave them away as prizes at a bridal shower with a label saying “spread the love”. The other day a friend called and asked if I wanted a strawberry rhubarb plant or two. Of course, I did. She gave me so much I was able to give some of it to another friend. So to me, rhubarb is all about sharing. BTW, as kids we ate raw rhubarb plain or dipped in salt. Yes, I did say salt. Makes my mouth water as I think about it. Thanks so much, Maureen, for your always delightful posts.

    1. Greg Carpenter says:

      I like the idea of salt… kinda like salt licorice, unexpectedly good.

  6. Greg Carpenter says:

    Ditto on the raw rhubarb. Back in the day, as a preserves cook at American Spoon Foods I frequently made Strawberry Rhubarb preserves and deliciously tangy Rhubarb Marmalade. There is something about the frantic pace of a production cook that encourages a touch of masochism. Chowing on puckery nuggets of rhubarb as I tended my 7 kettles of boiling fruit helped give me just enough attitude to keep the pace and ignore the burning splatters. Occasionally a piece did find its way into the sugar before landing in my mouth….

  7. Kristen English says:

    My Mom grew rhubarb in her garden behind our house, and we loved it! Strawberry-rhubarb pie, stewed and sweetened rhubarb sauce over vanilla ice cream, yum. And we did eat it raw: clean a stalk and dip the end in a plate of sugar for each crunchy sweet and sour bite. 🙂