Last week our menu became just a bit more varied; the garden is beginning to produce fun stuff to eat – like asparagus, lettuce, beet tops, spinach and rhubarb.
Time to get out my notebook with the collection of rhubarb recipes. The old favorites of rhubarb cake that came from a farm wife friend, the rhubarb whip that I intended to dazzle my farmer with as a newlywed so many years ago, only to hear him say, "My mother makes this." Argh!
The favorites are repeated often during rhubarb season and we always try a new recipe or two; there are so many ways to prepare rhubarb. It even pairs up nicely with pork chops, and my adventurous children even put it in a chipolte sauce.
Growing up, rhubarb was something every farm had. When in season, the ever versatile plant would show up at any church dinner or farm meal and lunches. Why not? After a long winter of eating canned fruit from the cellar, it was high time our taste buds got to eat something fresh. Something of a spring tonic, one might say!
As I grew older, I discovered that not everyone has a rhubarb patch in their backyard. It can actually be found in the grocery store. And it is somewhat in demand, because last year I heard rhubarb was mysteriously disappearing from backyards in town.
Don’t look at me – my farmer made sure I had plenty of rhubarb; there are at least fifty plants here at our place. There was a small patch by the house from which we started new plantings from; just possibly, that first patch is as old as this farm. With this area being settled in 1870, it could be quite ancient. It just keeps on coming back. Wonderful, as it makes the best pies, desserts and jams.
Historians tell us that rhubarb was introduced to the USA by Benjamin Franklin. He must have realized that farm wives everywhere would appreciate saving a penny or two on the grocery bill once rhubarb was ready for use. Wouldn’t it had been great to see people’s faces when they first sampled it raw – because who could resist trying a new fruit and then developing recipes for it?
Actually, there are many debates about rhubarb. There is the debate over whether it is fruit or vegetable. People debate its flavor as to being a food highly sought, or just plum awful. "Plow the plants in," they say. My debate with it is only which favorite recipe to fix up next!
I feel sorry for our southern friends, because rhubarb is a northern plant. It prefers a climate of four distinct seasons (smart plant). So when we have southern guests coming for dinner, we often serve a rhubarb pie or dessert. One must treat them to flavors of the Midwest.
Since rhubarb grows so well here, I have often wondered why there are not rhubarb plantations in this area. If there were, imagine how our Christmas letters would sound: "Spent six weeks harvesting rhubarb. It was a bumper crop and in high demand. It appears that it has medicinal purposes besides tasting good in everything. During harvest I pulled rhubarb every day from my fifty acres of plants filling truck after truck then hauled it to the cannery."
Curious as to how farm wives used rhubarb in 1907, I decided to look in an old book titled Household Discoveries – An Encyclopedia of Practical Recipes and Processes by Sidney Moore. The recipes in there are for drying rhubarb and curing rhubarb root. I can’t imagine what they did with that as the book does not tell me. No doubt it was common knowledge a hundred years ago, thus no need for further instructions.
Time to go – rhubarb is calling!
Essays from My Farm House Kitchen | Renae B. Vander Schaaf
Renae B. Vander Schaaf, freelance writer, lives on a real working farm in northwest Iowa, and authored a book titled "A Place Of Refuge".
To Contact Renae B. Vander Schaaf, please email her at [email protected].