The many uses of rhubarb
September 10, 2009
When economic times were tough during my childhood, my family consumed inordinate amounts of hunting and gathering foodstuffs: trout, venison, chokecherry jam and rhubarb. Trout and venison have emerged as popular contemporary culinary choices; I doubt anyone today transforms local chokecherries into jam. Rhubarb, Aspen’s ubiquitous pie filler of the 1950s, may be easily found now in the grocery stores, but you have to pay $2.59 a pound for it.
A patch of rhubarb wins no gardening awards. It requires no careful cultivation. Rhubarb leads an untended life of its own, and most yards yielded some back then. Aspen’s abandoned houses seemed extra-prolific with the tart stalks leaning against paint-peeled walls. Neither watered nor weeded, it offered a treat to anyone walking by in need of something for that night’s dinner.
In seeming deference to Erma Bombeck’s adage, The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank, Aspen’s rhubarb took a liking to outhouses. You had to fight through the crop to open an outhouse door. Neglect certainly contributed to rhubarb growth, and the closer to the outhouse the more neglect there was. The luxuriant growth in that location may also have had something to do with enriched soil.
Aspen’s children of the 1950s remember rhubarb. Barney Bishop remembers using the stalks as swords, swashbuckling with his brother Gary. He recalls, “Even if you hit it with the lawnmower, it didn’t seem to hurt it; it came back year after year.” He would consume two pieces of his grandmother’s pie at one sitting.
Phil Hemann remembers, “We had a huge rhubarb patch behind our house, it grew wild everywhere on our place. Mom made pie once in a while, but we mostly would just break off a chunk and chew on it. Really sour, but sort of addicting.” Apparently he had been warned off the poisonous leaves.
Denice Reich remembers, “We always had rhubarb porridge for breakfast.” Denice reveals the secrets for great rhubarb pie, “The more sugar the better and use the smallest ones. They are the most tender.”
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Since we were all kids then, we can report only rumors that some locals made rhubarb wine. The old-time Swedes and Italians fermented a number of items in tough times. When they did not order a freight car of grapes, they turned to native plants. We can only guess that dandelion and rhubarb wines tasted on the sour side. None of us professed experience with such brews.
As adults we all get an annual urge for rhubarb pie, unadulterated by strawberries. Should you want to try the tart treat, there must certainly still be patches of the stuff growing along the edges of alleys. Just remember, do not cut rhubarb stalks with a knife; grab the base of each stalk and give a quick lateral pull. Do not hog the whole plant. Proper harvesting and leaving a few stalks guarantees an abundant harvest for next year. Leaving the leaves will help ensure that you will be alive to enjoy next year’s pie.