There's something primal about rhubarb's relationship to its season, something that connects you to a time when you couldn't simply stroll to the corner for year-round bananas or arugula. Instead you ate cooked apples from Mason jars and went nearly out of your mind waiting for something green to unfurl from the thawing ground—or so I imagine from having read too many Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Even now, with everything available all the time, rhubarb is like a tonic, and to eat it in the springtime, even as a spoonful of jam, is to know that something is going on in the dirt that we can't see and don't fully understand: It's not surprising to find that rhubarb is, in fact, loaded with minerals—calcium, magnesium, and potassium—since you can practically taste them. It's technically a vegetable, one that grows from a rootstock called, elegantly enough, a crown. And then there's the beguiling fact of its toxicity, due to the oxalic acid in its leaves. It's tempting to make a joke about how rhubarb is the botanical equivalent of blowfish—it should require specially licensed chefs slicing away the dangerous bits with fugu knives—but truthfully, you'd have to eat 11 pounds of the leaves to kill yourself, and you'd likely die long before then of a fatal jaw cramp. Still, you should feel free to think of yourself as a gastronomic daredevil when you eat a slice of pie—and therein lies rhubarb's seductive paradox: It's at once exotic and utterly humble.
Rhubarb is sturdy and prolific, loyally perennial, totally bugproof, high yielding, and easy to pick—the long stalks pull straight out of the ground, without any of that pesky fruit-foraging among leaves and brambles or high up in a tree. Plus, there's no dauntingly finicky coring, peeling, or pitting—you just slice it up and you're ready to bake. All of this makes it satisfying to grow and inexpensive to buy: Where we live, spring farmers' markets fill with towers of blushing stalks that go for a few dollars a bundle, while signs along our country roads beg FREE RHUBARB! HELP YOURSELF! And I do.
Rhubarb is utterly without pretense: If it were a person, it would be wearing sensible shoes and a kerchief, which may be why, when you talk to people about rhubarb, the word grandma will come up more often than not. And so it is with my own children. At my parents' farmhouse in upstate New York, my father and I are watching out the window while the kids, in their Wellies, bend over the rhubarb patch with my mother. They're tugging silky, scarlet stalks from the ground as the sky darkens to the deep blue of spring twilight, and my father and I talk about rhubarb's insane tartness ("Hang on, I already measured the sugar," he jokes, and hefts a five-pound bag onto the counter). The kids will help my mother mix the topping and cut up the rhubarb, which will go tender in the oven under its cover of crisping brown sugar, and we will eat the crumble warm with vanilla ice cream—the kids already in their pajamas—and everyone's eyes will squinch half shut in puckery pleasure. Whoever first thought to eat rhubarb? They were totally crazy—but we are so grateful.
Catherine Newman, author of the memoir Waiting for Birdy, writes a food and parenting column, Dalai Mama Dishes, on Family.com.
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