Rhubarb is the season's gift to us


Are you enjoying rhubarb season? When the robin nests in the cherry tree and thunderclouds tease us by gathering every afternoon, rhubarb is ready.

I'm weeding among leaves of rhubarb the size of TV trays when a woman stops jogging by and asks, "What's that plant?"

"Rhubarb," I tell her; our grandmothers called it "pie plant" because it made such good pies. She nods as if she remembers. I snap off a stalk and hold it up for her to taste, offering to give her some. She backs away, mumbling about busy-ness.

Too busy for rhubarb is too busy. I gnaw on the pink stalk, enjoying the tart, dry flavor. When that jogger finishes her run, she'll probably drive to the supermarket — passing wasted rhubarb on every street corner — to buy imported fruit.

At this moment, many people in the Northern Great Plains are probably no more than a half-mile from rhubarb, because our grandmothers planted it everywhere they lived. I've spotted neglected and thriving plants on street corners, between commercial buildings, in alleys and even in back yards pounded to dust by galumphing, inedible dogs.

Though discouraged by hot, dry weather in the South, rhubarb is grown commercially in Washington, Oregon and Michigan. I've seen it everywhere on the Northern Plains. The plant needs cold to trigger growth, so even a hard freeze shouldn't kill established plants, and harvest lasts from April through September. No wonder pioneer mothers liked the plant — no pampering — and it was one of the first foods to grow in spring. Imagine how that astringent flavor awakened tongues that had spent the winter eating beans!

Known to humans for around 4,500 years, rhubarb was probably imported by a Maine gardener between 1790 and 1800, and by 1822 was sold in produce markets. Well adapted, it's the easiest fruit I've ever prepared for use: no stems or pits to remove, no peel, no pre-cooking, no fuss.

Ninety-five percent water, rhubarb's crisp stalks are rich in vitamin C and dietary fiber, provide a fair amount of potassium and minor amounts of several other vitamins, and are low in sodium. One cup of diced rhubarb contains about 26 calories. The oxalic acid in the leaves worries experts who think it's poisonous — in huge amounts. A person weighing 145 pounds might need to eat 11 pounds of leaves to be poisoned. So, don't eat the leaves.

Reach past the elephant-ear-sized greenery to select stalks that are bright pink, crisp and free of blemishes; the smallest stalks are sweetest. Slide your hand down to where the stem emerges from the ground, and pull with a little twist. The stalk will snap loose easily without injury to the plant.

If you take no more than one-third of the stalks from a plant at a time, you can harvest more in a day or two. If you make my mother's honey rhubarb pie, you'll have trouble waiting that long.

Mildred's Honey Rhubarb Pie

      2 eggs
      2 tablespoons flour
      1 teaspoon salt
      3 cups raw rhubarb
      1 cup honey, sugar, or half and half
      1 tablespoon grated orange rind

Chop off the rhubarb leaves and spread them under the plants as mulch. Rinse the stalks in water, then discard the bottom inch of each. Whack the stalks into one-inch chunks. That's it, end of preparation!

Gently mix the other ingredients together, stir in the rhubarb, and dump the mix into a large pie crust. The rhubarb pile may stand an inch or two above the edges; it shrinks in cooking. Form a lattice crust over the top. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Then reduce heat to 350 degrees. In South Dakota, at an elevation of 3,500 feet, I baked the pie 30 minutes at the lower temperature; at higher elevations, the crust is lightly browned in 50 minutes.

Mother's recipe uses just enough honey to enhance the real flavor of the rhubarb. If you like gooey sweets, you may prefer to find a recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie. You probably put sugar on sweet corn, and catsup on a good steak, too.

After you polish off the pie, scour the pan with a fresh stalk — even if you burned it.

Look for other information about rhubarb on the Internet. Next time I see a crowd of shouting people in a movie scene, I'll read their lips; apparently, directors ask extras to repeat "rhubarb" as background hubbub of excited talk. And rhubarb even has its own Web site: www.Rhubarbinfo.com.

Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Cheyenne, Wyoming and rural South Dakota.

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