Catherine Newman's Rhubarb Crumble with vanilla ice cream
Photo: Lara Robby/Studio D
Read all the existentialist philosophers,
Like Schopenhauer and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Even Martin Heidegger agrees on one thing:
Eternal happiness is rhubarb tart.
A rhubarb what? A rhubarb tart!
A Jean-Paul who? A Jean-Paul Sartre!
Eternal happiness is rhubarb tart.
— From "The Rhubarb Tart Song," by John Cleese

My father and I like to imagine how people first came to eat certain things. "Hey," we joke about rhubarb, "I've got an idea! You know that plant? How we tried the leaves but they were poisonous and we got sick and died? This time let's pick the stalks! I'm thinking pie."

Rhubarb is punishingly bitter and puckeringly acidic, even cooked; it demands a free hand with the sugar. And you can forget about eating it raw, since the leaves are toxic and the stalks are inedibly sour. Investigate its nonculinary uses and you'll discover that it moonlights as an insecticide, a laxative, and a metal cleaner—and if you're not a fan, you'll say, "My point exactly." Oh, but if you are a fan, then reading about it even now, your mouth is probably watering. And the very sight of those satiny red stalks can make your jaw ache with the memory of their flavor: like roses and green apples and salt and clean pennies. Rhubarb is what tart would smell like, if tart were a smell.

The ineffable aroma is one draw, but rhubarb also looks uniquely fetching: It's celery dolled up in a rosy silk evening gown, all luster and shine. The stalks flush from green to pink to red and bake up into pioneer-era desserts with pleasantly cranky names like slump and grunt. But in England, where my mum is from, rhubarb pie is like this country's proverbial apple pie: a national culinary treasure. You assume everyday flavors are universal—your American cherry and lemon and orange—only until you travel abroad, when you realize that lychee soda is the Welch's grape of Japan, that corn is a regular Mexican ice cream variety, or that rhubarb is as common a flavor in Britain as black currant or gooseberry or barley—which is to say, perfectly ho-hum. There are rhubarb-and-custard hard candies, rhubarb-and-custard gummies, and a taunting dessert called rhubarb fool, which is—you guessed it—rhubarb and custard. Don't forget the ubiquitous rhubarb thickie ("smoothie" doubtless sounds just as obscenely ridiculous to the Brits) or the potent homemade rhubarb wine that you sip with your English grandparents over a polite game of mah-jongg, until suddenly you're on your back in the garden, staring up at the night sky and wondering how you got there.

Rhubarb might be too rousing to be called comfort food (the plant is about as cozy as a blanket full of bees), but still, it enjoys a moderately robust following here in the United States, where it stars in such homey, nostalgic desserts as pie, crumble, and streusel-topped cake. (My spiral-bound Exclusively Rhubarb Cookbook offers hundreds of recipes, but they're all just variations on the rhubarb-sugar-butter theme.) Sliced and baked under a layer of batter or pastry, the bright stalks melt into delectable, ruby-hued spoonfuls, perfectly complemented by whatever buttery cake or crust has risen atop, and deliciously completed by a dollop of vanilla-scented cream. Despite various claims about its versatility, and despite the fact that you might occasionally find it roasted alongside foie gras at a fancy restaurant or saucing salmon at my house (not bad!), rhubarb is nicknamed the pie plant for a reason: That's what it's famous for, and that's what it does best.