Friday, June 19, 2009

In Praise of Rhubarb

Rhubarb and I go back a long ways, almost to the beginning of my existence. As a child, rhubarb was the first – and only, for many years – vegetable I was allowed to pick all by myself.

The privilege probably resulted from the fact that no kid would willingly pick rhubarb on his own. In its natural state, rhubarb is way too sour to eat. And secondly, since it grows low to the ground, all it takes is a swipe of a knife along the base of the stalk to cut off a hunk.

My mother, like every other mother in the prairie town of Buxton, North Dakota (one of those big, flat square States hardly anyone bothers with anymore) had a rhubarb plant. Ours was on the far edge of the lawn, just to the left of the arbor, which, you should know, was covered with lilacs, not grapes.

There were probably 40 houses in Buxton, 200 people, tops, and every single one had a rhubarb plant somewhere – well, maybe Gina Eine didn’t, come to think of it, because she didn’t grow anything, not even crabapples. But everyone else did. When we moved from one house to another, the first thing my mother did was to be sure there was rhubarb planted in the new yard. Who could live without rhubarb?

Why the universal cultivation of rhubarb? Because it’s one of the very few vegetables that can be grown in North Dakota’s egregious climate, which includes eleven months of the year in snow is a possibility – earlier this week it snowed in Dickenson, ND – and one month in which it’s so hot and humid it hardly pays to lift your head off the pillow.

As it happens, that one month of summer is also the month in which the State Bird of Minnesota, the mosquito, immigrates into North Dakota, crossing the border by the billions, ready to feast on the hardy Scandinavians who’ve finally taken off their long underwear. In North Dakota, summer is something you look forward to only because it’s different, not because it’s pleasant.

So during what passes for summer in the Great Plains – say, a Tuesday in late June to maybe a Wednesday in early August – about once a week my mother would hand me a well-worn wooden-handled paring knife and say, “Go cut some rhubarb.” Like the good little girl I was, I’d go out the back door, not letting the screen door slam behind me, and walk slowly, careful to carry the little knife with the point down. The lush rhubarb plant almost seemed to be waiting for its weekly pruning.

The plant grows big and bushy, really nothing more than huge serrated-edged leaves with thick pink stalks. I’d bend down, push the big leaves aside on the lookout for worms, which I loathed. Seeing none, I’d carefully slice off about five or six stalks right at the base. The stalks are huge things, maybe about two feet long. You had to be careful not to take too many at once, or the plant would die. But five stalks usually were plenty for whatever my mother had in mind, which was invariably what we called “sauce”.

Now that I’m older and ever so much more sophisticated, I realize the rest of the world calls stewed fruits “compote”, but in that time and place, it was “sauce”. The fact that rhubarb is technically a vegetable didn't matter at all, either.

The recipe was virtually foolproof. All you did was wash the stalks, chop them into one-inch segments, put them in a pan, cover them with water, and throw in a totally ridiculous amount of sugar. We didn’t have measuring cups in those days – still, I can’t quite imagine why anyone would bother with one – but it took an awful lot of sugar to make sour rhubarb palatable, like maybe two cups. This mixture would simmer for just a little while – half hour maybe – and then you’d let it cool. Like revenge, rhubarb sauce is a dish served cold.

Up to my finding rhubarb in an Israeli supermarket the other day – which sparked this tale – I thought rhubarb was exclusively the province of Scandinavians. Why? Because once it’s cooked, it looks really gross, which is something that appeals greatly to Scandinavians.

The appeal probably has something to do with the local notion of sin: If it looks good, you probably shouldn’t risk eating it because you might find yourself enjoying it, which could be problematical. If it looks or smells bad, it’s probably fine.

The funny thing about a lot of Scandinavian dishes is that – however delicious they might be – they tend to look like they’ve already been eaten once before.

My all-time favorite dessert is something called dravla, which is basically milk that’s simmered for the better part of the day. When it curdles, at about the third hour of cooking, it begins to look -- and smell -- like something that didn’t agree with the dog. But wait until you taste it! Heaven!

Or lutefisk, which I also love, which is slabs of codfish cured in lye, the aroma of which has been known to drive unaccustomed noses out of the house for good.

Even lefse -- basically a potato tortilla -- would appeal to hardly anyone, if they stopped with just looking at it. Eating lefse is pure delight, but it, too, is an acquired taste. In terms of taste and texture, outsiders have been known to say it tastes something like old wallpaper, only not quite as good.

Similarly rhubarb sauce isn’t visually tempting. It’s a little watery, a little stringy, pale pink in color, with flecks of red from the stalks. The taste, though, is marvelous once you’ve acquired it. Rhubarb sauce is sweet and sour, totally unique. Nothing else in the world tastes like rhubarb.

So once I left North Dakota in the 1960’s to head for the wilds of San Francisco, I didn’t think much about rhubarb. Newly emancipated as I was, it didn’t occur to me to seek it out – in fact, if I’d thought about it, I probably would have said that rhubarb wasn’t something you could buy. It was more like dandelions, something that just grew in your back yard.

Not until my last year of law school did I change that opinion. Then, one month, I don’t know what I’d done, or how I’d mismanaged, but ran into seriously hard times. With a full ten days of the month left, I had only $1.26 to spend on food. This was long before credit cards, and I wasn’t inclined to risk kiting a check, so I had to find something to sustain myself for ten days that wouldn’t cost more than $1.26.

I went to a cut-rate grocery store and bought two boxes of graham crackers, 50 cents each. Then I went to the early morning produce market and found a huge sack of day-old rhubarb. The Chinese guy finally agreed to sell it to me for a quarter. I had sugar at home – not enough to make it good, but enough to make it edible.
Graham crackers and rhubarb probably don’t score on any dietician-approved diet, but it did the trick. I lived to see another day.

Over the years, mostly out of nostalgia, I’d buy rhubarb. In Sacramento, when my kids were little, I’d occasionally make sauce. I rather doubt they remember it -- I may not have ever succeeded in getting them to taste it. Most likely, rhubarb sauce was a dish I ate alone.

Which brings us up to yesterday.

I was running an errand in a different neighborhood and decided to do the weekly shopping while I was out. I headed into a different supermarket, one that leans toward the gourmet, and what do you think I found? Packages of fresh rhubarb!

Rhubarb in Israel? That’s a little like papaya in Alaska. It’s out of context here -- although the labels are written in both Hebrew and Russian, so maybe it’s a Russian favorite, too. That would make sense – rhubarb, it is said, requires temperatures below 40¬ degrees Fahrenheit to break dormancy and to stimulate growth with summer temperatures not exceeding 75 degrees.

I can’t imagine where in Israel it’s being grown, but now that I think about it, it's likely that rhubarb may be a Russian delicacy as well as a Scandinavian one. Siberia would be a pretty good place to grow it, I’d guess.

In any event, I bought two packages – even here, it’s cheap, NIS 5.99 a package, about $1.50.

So today I’m making rhubarb sauce. Not “compote”, you understand. “Sauce.”

Shabbat shalom, everyone! Have a good weekend!


  1. Absolutely wonderful nostagia there!

  2. I hope there are some Scandinavians and North Dakotans reading this and getting all your wicked jokes about gross-looking food, long underwear and mosquitos! Very funny - thank you!

  3. But it doesn't look gross!! It is pretty!!
    I too love rhubarb sauce, pie, whatever can be made with it. It grew in our garden and then sucked up our sugar to become sweet.
    Oh, and I also ate it raw with a little salt on it. Delish.

  4. I have to tall ya, the 'sauce' is wonderful -- a great treat. For whatever reason -- maybe that the stalks were more green than red -- the final product turned out to be more of a pale green than pink. Which actually looks better, believe it or not.

    A couple of times I've made lefse here, too -- it's not that hard to make, just mashed potatoes and a little flour, really.

    But lutefisk? That's beyond me -- I can't imagine any place here selling cured codfish. But who knows? I was surprised to see rhubarb -- why shouldn't there be lutefisk here, too, some day?

    It was fun remembering all this -- thanks for reading and your commenting!

  5. For those of you who sent me 'North Dakota' jokes, I've finally stopped laughing long enough to make one response:

    Remember that North Dakota went for McCain.

    Those prairie folks have more sense than a lot of other people I can think of.....