I’m a meditative cook. Sometimes when my writing is stalled, I take to the kitchen to clear the tangled pathways. The sift of flour, rhythmic swing of a chef’s knife, first fragrant waft from the oven are like mantras. I love to buy spices as some women love shoe shopping (okay, I love to buy shoes too). Seasonal offerings are my favorite. Here today, then gone.
Rhubarb stands out, impressive for the fact that it resists agri-business. This is the time for the flapping green leaves topping ruby pink stalks, like flamingoes with fashionable chapeaux. It can be found in markets, though I am usually disappointed by the store-bought variety, often cut days before and turned tough and dry. I’ve always managed to keep a small patch wherever I’ve lived. Ready to cut. Ready for rhubarb pie, rhubarb crisp. Mixed with strawberries or straight up. An Iranian friend once shared a Persian recipe for savory beef and rhubarb. As a kid in the country, I loved to eat it right from the garden in all its sour glory.
The Chinese were loving rhubarb about 5,000 years ago for its medicinal properties. This despite the fact that the leaves contain toxic levels of oxalic acid and are not edible, either raw or cooked. A version of the plant appeared in the middle east much later and eventually the plant showed up in New England. Some reports have an unnamed Maine farmer sowing the first seeds; some credit Ben Franklin, the man who seemed to have a hand in everything. Whatever the route, Massachusetts cooks were using it regularly in the 1800s. When Fannie Farmer published the Boston Cooking School-Cookbook in 1897 and for succeeding editions, she standardized the simple ingredients of rhubarb, sugar, flour (she added an egg). Garrison Keillor has also made rhubarb a staple of Prarie Home Companion with his regular announcements of: “brought to you by Bebopareebop Rhubarb Pie and frozen rhubarb pie filling.”
For me, rhubarb will always begin with the patch in back of my family’s home, next to the grape arbor, to the side of the main garden. Poisonous leaves, sour stalks, short of season. But so good. Ah, rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb.