Medicine, poison, and sweet nostalgia: Rhubarb

Medicine, poison, and sweet nostalgia: Rhubarb

If you're like me you don't give much thought to rhubarb.  It's a little obscure and old-fashioned; it has a short, overpriced appearance in the grocery store each May and June ($2.99 a pound, anyone?); and it doesn't even taste good.  Unless you add buckets of sugar, it's just too sour.

But you may have a small corner in your mind that contains a memory about rhubarb.  I have a vague recollection of a childhood strawberry-rhubarb pie that has attained a mythical status in my mind.  But who would have baked this perfect pie?  Certainly not my mother.  She made a pie once, years before I was born: a painstakingly-woven, lattice-topped blueberry pie, heaped high before baking, and afterward, a flat puddle of blue with a hollow arched lattice roof soaring above, deemed by my mother as "the stupidest thing she ever saw," and marking both her pie debut and pie retirement. I can't say where my pie memory comes from.  It's small, and blurry, and tart-sweet.

Or a friend who has a blurry-edged memory of her father's rangey garden, out of control, out of order, and weed-filled.  One day the children are charged with weeding, and the work comes to an abrupt halt when they discover a beautiful red sword plant, just waiting to give up its stalks for a war.  Well into the battle, the mother marks, probably from the kitchen window, probably with some surprise, that there is actually a food-yielding plant in all that weedy mess.  That summer is a summer of a great many rhubarb dishes.

These memories, while evocative--of something not quite in focus, something just around the corner, something a little bit sour and making the mouth start to water--are not enough to help me confront my current situation.

My rhubarb situation.

You may recall that my family and my neighbors now share a patch in the community garden.  We were assigned a plot that already held a dear little rhubarb plant and a sturdy little oregano bush.  Both were some years old and simply too well-established to transplant.  In March they seemed manageable.  Now they are both poised to consume our entire patch and probably all the adjacent patches too.

rhubarb bush

We'll talk about oregano in a later post.  Lord knows the rhubarb is enormous enough to fill up several weeks' worth of posts all on its own, but I'll spare you.

Its season has come and gone.  Still our rhubarb remains, unharvested.  It is larger than my 9 year old daughter and looks like it was grown in Alaska.

rhubarb in garden

I did give three stalks to its former owner, a gardener who's moved up in the world of the community garden to a sunnier patch.  I was delighted when I learned that that former gardener was one Sandy Norbeck, perhaps the sole bright light in my graduate school memories, an administrator from across the pond who ran the ship in a kind, orderly, and probably very British fashion.  Sandy's rhubarb!  What a good omen!  Sandy told me she used to pick a few stalks, chop them up and saute them with a little sugar, then eat that over yogurt.  It sounds simple and delicious, but I have yet to try this.

I'm a little overwhelmed.  Plus I think I scared my family, not to say myself, talking about rhubarb's dark side.  We're all history buffs around here so I thought the family would be thrilled by stories of unfortunate rhubarb-eating forebears who ate the toxic leaves in times of scarcity, and died.  My chemistry-minded husband cannot help but wonder why the stalk is "safe" if the leaves are "poisonous."

Back in the day, I tell them--back in ancient China, that is--it was the root of the plant that was highly valued for its medicinal properties.  By the time the British got mixed up with the Chinese, China was attempting to guard and control the export of rhubarb with little success.  In the late 19th century rhubarb was valued at 20 times the cost of saffron and 3 times that of opium. As one rhubarb-friendly historian quipped, you could call the Opium Wars the Rhubarb Wars and not be far off the mark.

By now there is little use of the rhubarb root for its main purpose--as a laxative.

After brief and ill-fated wartime experimentation with stewing the leaves, gardeners turned to the stalks when processed white sugar became widely available.  The history of rhubarb-cooking in this country pretty much begins with large-scale sugar-processing.

Still the use of rhubarb is rather small-scale.  But those who cook with rhubarb are a fanatically devoted bunch.  Those who grow it, even moreso.  Especially in England, where they have an entire industry, based in Yorkshire, of "forced rhubarb," that is to say, grown in pitch-black hothouses, nurtured gently, and prized for the tender, mild quality this method produces.  These farmers work by candlelight and wear tiny lights on their heads.  They whisper, there in the dark.  So as not to disturb the rhubarb, presumably.

forced rhubarb grower

It's such a brash snappy plant that I can only imagine it secretly chortling over such behavior.  But as I said, rhubarb devotees are some very serious folks.  They love their rhubarb.  Many states have festivals in honor of the peculiar plant, and we have one right here in Illinois.  Each May in Kankakee is the Rhubarb Festival, complete with an anything-goes recipe contest.  Though I was unable to attend I did get some information, including winning recipes, from the bash.  There is a "5-person local sorority" which judges this contest, and it is unclear to me whether this group exists solely for the purpose of rhubarb judging.  The festival also includes live music, vendors, things for kids, and tours of the Kankakee County Museum historical sites.

History.  Always with the history.  What is it with this plant?  It has to be one of the most evocative summer garden plants, its long stalks tapping into our memories, its oddly buttery tart snap bringing pictures long past back into our minds.

No one says to me when I ask for a recipe, and I do, all the time, "Oh, I have the best one!"  No, they say, in every case, with a sudden far away look in their eyes, a remembering look, a look with a smile about the edges and a whiff of maybe sadness too, "Oh, my great aunt used to make...." or "This was my grandma's favorite pie...." or "When I was a girl we always used to make....."  People don't talk this way about cherries.  Blueberries? No way. No one gets misty-eyed about strawberries.  Even delicate, ethereal raspberries don't evoke this much subtle subterranean emotion.

I don't understand it.  But it's time to get busy with our rhubarb plant, start clear-cutting, and start cooking.  I'll report back with results and recipes.  And I'll keep watch for swirling mists of nostalgia.


Sources: The Rhubarb Compendium (; Yorkshire Post (, 2/26/12, 2/23/11; photo of forced rhubarb grower from

Filed under: recipes


Leave a comment
  • fb_avatar

    love this, julie v. i could read you all day. so i will just sit here with my arms crossed waiting for your book to roll off the presses. xox

  • bammy, you're the best. But all you have to wait for right now is Rhubarb Part II, the recipes. I promise none of them will be poisonous.

Leave a comment