Volume XVII, Issue 20 # May 14 - May 20, 2009

I am a child of the Great Depression, and when Mother suggested she was thinking of rhubarb sauce or maybe a pie, I headed for the back door where 20 feet away were two rhubarb plants; in my hands a paring knife.

What’s All the Fuss About?

Rhubarb, of course

Rhubarb is much better in pies
Sweet, sour and attracting flies
It’s as good as gooseberry
And tasty as cherry
Please, have a slice — do not be shy.

–Marlene: The Rhubarb Compendium at www.rhubarbinfo.com

I must admit I was torn the other day when I offered slices of pie to six coworkers and my daughter Liz. Normally, I’m of a generous bent in sharing, but at times I’m sufficiently parsimonious to make Scrooge appear a spendthrift. This was one of those times.

There we were in the conference room of Bay Weekly turned dining room for the midday occasion with every eye looking hungrily at the dessert placed in front of me with flourish by editor Sandra Martin. I wanted one and all to better appreciate the vegetable within the crust, but I must confess my mind whirled.

Take eight slices from a pie of even ample size (which this one was) and how much will be left to take home for before bedtime snacks, my regular routine of capping off a day with something satisfying and tasty? What better incentive for sweet dreams?

Thankfully, Martin probably sensed my predicament, took over the knife and all around the table had an adequate slice with enough left over for me to have seconds in a smaller slice — and take home enough for two before-bedtime snacks.

Eating Rhubarb

So what was all the fuss about? Seems one day reader Juanita Foust of Fairhaven Cliffs thought she had nothing better to do than bake Bill Burton not just a rhubarb pie, but a rhubarb custard pie, something he had never enjoyed though he has downed more of the vegetable in sauces, straight rhubarb pies, rhubarb/strawberry pies and raw stalks dipped in salt or sugar than any 10 other diners on rhubarb combined. That’s how much I appreciate rhubarb.

Rhubarb to me is like fruitcakes, a delicacy unappreciated or ignored by most whose taste buds have gone awry. I am a child of the Great Depression, and when Mother suggested she was thinking of rhubarb sauce or maybe a pie, I headed for the back door where 20 feet away were two rhubarb plants; in my hands a paring knife. An ample portion of sugar transformed the sour and bitter taste into something akin to a bing cherry sauce. And desserts weren’t for every dinner and supper in those tough times.

Being a country boy, I prefer my rhubarb fresh from the garden, but I have been unsuccessful the many times I’ve tried to grow it here in North County; rhubarb prefers cooler temperatures and more moisture. Juanita hails from Washington State, where rhubarb is appreciated. Her husband Cliff, a Maryland native, in ’92 authored a book (Rhubarb: the Wondrous Drug). The two have combined efforts to successfully raise enough rhubarb for several pies. At other times, Juanita gardens it at Safeway.

I can say without reservation that Juanita’s rhubarb custard pie (with apologies to Mother and Grandma) was the best rhubarb-based pie I have ever tasted. Often, rhubarb is combined with strawberries for pies, sauces and jams, which are tasty, but overwhelmed is the true taste of rhubarb says Juanita. I agree. I wish I had a slice of her pie for any reader who questions me. The custard adds not only taste but texture and consistency.

Seeing I can’t offer all doubters a slice of my pie, I’ll do second best. Here’s the recipe, which Juanita copied from a Betty Crocker cookbook long ago.

Rhubarb Custard Pie

Mix 3 eggs, 3 tablespoons milk, 11⁄2 cups sugar, 4 tablespoons flour, 3⁄4 teaspoon nutmeg and 4 cups chopped rhubarb. Place in pie crust. Before adding the top crust, place 3 pats of butter atop the concoction. Bake at 400 degrees for 50 minutes.

Growing Rhubarb

While the stalks of rhubarb are nutritious as well as tasty, avoid the broad green leaves. They can make you quite sick, even cause death. Throw them away, or better still put them on a compost pile.

I recall that Aunt MiMi had a problem with a woodchuck who fancied rhubarb, any part of it, at her garden in Vermont — and she liked rhubarb, too. One day she took a pot shot at the whistle pig with a 16-gauge shotgun I loaned her for garden patrol. The recoil knocked off her glasses. One lens was broken, and she decided it best to share her crop thereafter. On its rhubarb diet the woodchuck grew to plump old age.

If rhubarb on a plate doesn’t interest you, it’s medicinal uses are virtually countless, says Juanita. Catherine the Great used it as a laxative. Got blonde or light brown hair? Simmer three tablespoons of rhubarb root in two cups water for 15 minutes, set aside overnight and strain, then rinse hair to a golden shade.

Also, rhubarb leaves can be combined with softened soap ends to make an organic insecticide for any leaf-eating insects such as aphids, slugs and caterpillars.

To grow your rhubarb, Juanita advises, have patience, don’t give up. Plant in February, give it a couple years to develop, hope for cold weather and “dig it and dung it.” The latter suggestion brings to mind the following limerick:

“Your rhubarb, I’ve noticed it grows
By the outhouse where everyone goes!”
Grandad said, “Lad, it,
It isn’t so bad.
They’re family! Just people we knows!”

–TuttaGioia: The Rhubarb Compendium.

Enough said.