Actors murmur rhubarb's name to mimic the sound of a crowd—and spellbound cooks love it for its tart, one-of-a-kind flavor. Baked under a fragrant blanket of brown sugar and topped with vanilla ice cream, it's the very taste of spring.
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.
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.
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, March 10, 2014
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