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Rhubarb by any other name …

food for thought

My mother called it “pie plant,” and my dad, by example, taught me that all treats don’t necessarily have to be sweet-tasting. Dad was big on what I came to think of as “grazing” in the garden. He’d pull up a radish, baby carrot, or little green onion, brush off the soil and eat it right there, standing amid the rows of growing vegetables he’d planted weeks earlier. I learned, from his example, that a tomato, still warm from the sunshine was juicier and more flavorful than one that had been chilled in the refrigerator, that baby peas have a unique flavor when eaten raw, and that even the pods are a sweet, crunchy treat straight off the vine.
And I learned that rhubarb’s bright tartness was not only a pleasant flavor adventure, but that it successfully grossed out my younger sisters and made my bossy older sister furious because she couldn’t get accustomed to the sour taste and would take one bite and spit it out while I chewed and SMILED, savoring each bite.
My grandmother said that rhubarb was especially good for you in the spring; that it “thinned your blood” after a winter of artery-clogging foods and helped you adapt to hot summer weather. I doubt that there is much medical evidence to back up her statement, but Grandma had lots of those little sayings we called “old wives’ tales” and some of them seemed to make sense. She told us that there is only so much sugar in each strawberry and that the little ones are twice as sweet as the ones that are twice the size. (Possibly, she told us that to get us to pick the little ones and not pass them up for the ones that filled our berry baskets more quickly.) She insisted that the more color food had, the more flavor it delivered. Brown eggs, with their thicker shells do seem to keep better than white ones, but I’ve never noticed that they have a better flavor. And red-skinned potatoes DO taste different from brown-skinned ones, but that is probably because they are a different variety, not necessarily because they are red. And I do know that the redder the rhubarb stalks are, the sweeter the flavor (though not even the reddest rhubarb is ever very sweet.)
I remember a particular variety of rhubarb that was quite slender with dark red skin. Grandma called it “strawberry rhubarb” and it made superior, beautiful, pink pies. I’ve often wondered if that is where the notion of a strawberry and rhubarb pie originated. Outside of the fact that strawberries and rhubarb are both available at roughly the same time of year, I can see no other reason for combining them in a pie. After all, rhubarb pie needs to be baked for close to an hour; strawberry pie is best when it features fresh, uncooked strawberries. Combining the two seems like a waste of both the strawberries and the rhubarb. I prefer to think that someone, not knowing any better, assumed that strawberry-rhubarb pie was made from strawberries and rhubarb, not from those slender, red stalks known as “strawberry rhubarb.”
My mother made other things besides pies from her rhubarb. Most often, she made a simple cooked sauce, served warm or chilled. The rhubarb was simply cut into half inch dice and cooked with half as much sugar as rhubarb, a tiny pinch of salt, and a sprinkle of cinnamon or nutmeg. This two-to-one ratio seems to have been standard for any of the things she made with the rhubarb, even though sometimes the pie would be overly sweet, or a bit too tart, depending on the tartness of the rhubarb she used. The same mixture made the main part of a rhubarb crisp, with the same oatmeal and sugar topping she used for apple crisp. This was often served warm with ice cream or whipped cream, as was the cobbler she made with a cake-like topping made with sweetened biscuit mix.
Shortly after I was married, my new mother-in-law introduced me to a delicious rhubarb jam that had a pretty orange tint and slightly orange flavor to it. The secret of this jam seems to have been those candy orange slices we loved as children. Apparently she chopped or ground them and combined them with the rhubarb and sugar, which were then cooked down with Sure-Jell or Certo. Unfortunately, I never got her recipe, but I have made a reasonably similar jam through trial and error. (I learned the hard way that the orange slices have to be ground up because they will not melt from the heat if you just throw them whole into the cooking rhubarb.) And for that custardy rhubarb pie we always order when eating at the Amanas, try combining three eggs with a cup and a half of sugar, add some nutmeg and pour it over three and a half cups of cut rhubarb in an unbaked pie shell. Add a top crust and bake for about an hour at 350°.