by Brian Kelsey
a simple word with the ability to cause immediate reactions in those who either love or hate this crimson stalk.
Although technically a vegetable, rhubarb is most often prepared with sugar for the purpose of dessert, therefore often confusing you into believing it is a fruit.
From its earliest mention in recorded history, rhubarb was considered to have medicinal qualities and was used more as a curative than a treasured dessert inspiration. Dating as far back as 700 BC, the Chinese variety of rhubarb was used for its purgative (the polite term for laxative) qualities and was even held back from export to other “western” countries, to keep the barbarians sick.
Today, it is considered a farmhouse staple, as it is a common perennial on most farmsteads and older properties. But how did it find its way to the United States? And why has it become such a staple in baking and canning over the years?
Early records point to a few different sources of rhubarb’s arrival in the New World. Maybe the earliest is in 1770 when Benjamin Franklin sent a crate of rhubarb root to his friend John Bartram, an early American botanist, horticulturist and explorer.
At that time in history, the root was still the most used part of the rhubarb plant, primarily for medicinal purposes. During the 17th century, European pharmacists were encouraging the planting of rhubarb, but it didn’t take long for the French to discover the stalks were edible and produced a fine tasting sauce.
Finally, in 1829, rhubarb seeds made their appearance in seed catalogs in the United States, and this vegetable began making its appearance at farms and homesteads, affectionately known as “pie plant.”
Rhubarb became especially prevalent in the Northern states since it is a hearty plant requiring little tending. Best of all, it arrives early and is the first “fruit” of the growing season.
We probably all have our memories of rhubarb, in the form of pie, jam, sauce over ice cream, cake or bars.
This tart gem needs to be mixed with both sugar and a bit of salt to tame its tartness and transform it into a memorable dessert item.
My first memories of rhubarb is in the form of a pie, mixed with other fruit. It wasn’t until I was older that I acquired the taste for rhubarb on its own…unaltered by the flavor of strawberries or any other “enhancer.” From that point, rhubarb pie became one of my all-time favorites. The only enhancer rhubarb pie requires (in my world) is a nice piece of cheddar cheese melted on top, to give the perfect sweet and salty flavor I adore.
When we first bought our property between Egg Harbor and Fish Creek, we realized our soil was not the best for growing much of anything unless it was in a raised garden. Two of the first plants we put in the small garden space were rhubarb. We were excited to watch them grow and couldn’t wait until it began producing so we would have enough for a few pies each summer.
While we waited, friends with large patches were kind enough to be our supplier of these tart stalks. It was always interesting to see what color stalk each person had in the heirloom gardens. Many assume the natural color is the deep red, but plenty of plants have greenish stalks or a calico blend of greens and reds.
After a few growing seasons we realized “our” rhubarb plants much preferred to bolt—go to seed—before producing any edible stalks. Around the time we discovered our plants’ bolting tendencies, my cousin was re-working some of the garden beds of our grandmother’s summer home on Cottage Row. He offered us a portion of her rhubarb plant.
We were thrilled to take him up on his offer for two reasons: first, we love the sentimental aspect of having a piece of my grandmother’s Haggerty rhubarb that she planted in the 1960s. It would become a gift that, year after year, brings back memories of time spent with her at the home in Fish Creek. Second, this plant was a solid producer and was the deep red color variety.
With hope and a bit of trepidation, we planted it in our garden. Much to our great relief it has thrived and produced exceptional stalks for more than 10 years now. Each time I see the plant push up through the soil, I become nostalgic, and memories whirl through my mind. I think of my grandmother and the thought that she put into planting the rhubarb. I suspect she looks down in great approval at seeing it spread to my home and provide my family with joy.
It gives me great pleasure watching my partner pass on his great love of pie making to our 17-year-old son. Listening to the two of them discuss the importance of adding salt (to sweeten the sour) and cinnamon (to add depth) to the rhubarb pie is a treasure, as it is what his grandmother, Inez Berndt, taught him. Inez, co-owner of the iconic Carlton East in Green Bay, was known to whip up a custom-made pie when a regular guest appeared at the door. Unbeknownst to the patron, that piping hot pie was waiting for their dessert. Pie making was her art, as was her hospitality. I am thankful to have known this special woman, and thankful her grandson paid close attention so he could pass this gift to his son. Isn’t that what life is all about? Passing down memories, recipes, stories and love?
In the spirit of sharing and passing on traditions and recipes, I wanted to share three of our family’s favorite uses of rhubarb. The first is my current favorite and a perennial summer favorite for our friends and family. We got this idea after two trips to Iceland—rhubarb is popular there—and purchased a liqueur made from rhubarb.
I hope these recipes bring as much happiness and joy to your family as they do to mine. Rhubarb may seem to be a one-dimensional ingredient, but its uses are unlimited.
If you have not enjoyed rhubarb in the past, it is my hope that you will try some of these recipes (don’t forget the salt trick!) To me, summer is never truly here until I have a fresh piece of rhubarb pie and a refreshing rhubarb gin and tonic on the deck. Cheers!