From My Window
By Jane Thibodeau Martin,
Not long after we moved to Oklahoma, we got invited to a pot luck. Since it was spring, I decided to make a favorite dessert that features rhubarb. I was quite surprised to be unable to locate any " including at the local "truck farm/local produce" stand. So I started asking around, and found out no one I talked to from Oklahoma had ever eaten it.
With this knowledge, during a trip back to the "motherland" (Wisconsin,) I picked a bunch at a relative's house and froze it. Back home, I baked one of my favorite pies, strawberry-rhubarb, a definitive taste of spring. I took it to an event, and people were amazed at how good it was.
Recently, for the very first time in Oklahoma, I did find some rhubarb at the local "produce-specialty" store " it looked rather old and tired, but it was still priced at an astonishing $4.99 a pound. Luckily, I still have some in my freezer here that looks better than that did.
After doing a bit of research it became clear why rhubarb is such a foreign commodity here. It does not like temperatures over 90 (much like me!) and needs a chilling dormant period to recharge. So, Oklahoma is not at all hospitable for rhubarb. Apparently some "motherland transplants" in Texas do grow it as an annual there, planting seeds indoors in August and transplanting the plant outside in early October with a one-time harvest in March.
However, in the motherland rhubarb seems to thrive on neglect. While a good annual crop every year is encouraged by an annual top dressing of rotted manure, I have often seen beautiful plants at abandoned or neglected homesteads. It is not uncommon for plants to live for decades. You can divide a mature plant and give starters to someone else " I read about a person who still has their plant gifted by a grandparent long deceased. One of the very best things about rhubarb is the deer do not like it. Perhaps they know the leaves are toxic " but given the frustrations people have with deer eating nearly all their cultivated plants, it's another thing in its favor.
Rhubarb, which was from central Asia, has a documented history of more than 3,000 years. It was originally not considered a food item, rather, people used it in traditional Chinese medicine. Because it is high in oxalic acid (the reason the leaves are toxic,) it was also used as an agent for cleaning metal, tanning leather, and controlling insects. It was even used as a lightening agent for hair like some still use lemon juice.
There are many different varieties of rhubarb, much like tomatoes, but most people refer to "red" or "green" rhubarb, depending on the color of the stalks. My aunt likes a variety called "Canadian Red," and says she finds the stalks stay tender longer. Some of my older relatives just referred to rhubarb as "pie plant," after, of course, one of the favorite desserts made with the stalks. Like lots of other Wisconsin kids, we used to break off a stalk and dip it into sugar, still grimacing at the strong tart taste.
You just can't beat rhubarb pie, whether mixed with any other fruit or as custard. It's awesome in cobbler, muffins, and sweet breads, and I have a crock pot recipe for rhubarb sauce that is good on pork, pancakes or oatmeal. While I was thinking about rhubarb, I started wondering if it would be good as a salsa ingredient. A quick google and there were lots of salsas featuring rhubarb. I am going to make one to try tomorrow, and I'll be sure to let you know how it turns out next week.
As we prepare to move back north I am already dreaming of my little Wisconsin garden. It will feature at least one red and one green rhubarb plant, and I won't have to be pilfering my treasured supply from my brother-in-law's garden any more.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.
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