Fewer things conjure up stronger emotions than the word rhubarb. Love it or hate it, it’s here for a few weeks and chances are you’re going to encounter it before the season is over—if you’re lucky. I’m a fan of this mysterious-looking plant that pops up in the springtime, seemingly overnight.
Rhubarb comes from the French word Rubarbe, which came from the medieval Latin word Rheubarbarum. Rha was a name the Scythians used for what is now the Volga River. Barbarum is a term for “foreign” and the Greeks and Romans noted it was only the foreigners who lived around the Rha River who grew the strange plant. When you put the two words together you end up with the word rhubarb. It grew wild along the banks of the Rha because it loves cold, damp climates. Sound familiar?
Rhubarb goes all the way back to 2700 B.C.E., where it was an ingredient in Chinese herbal medicines. In the first century, the Greeks and the Romans imported the dried roots for medicinal purposes. Around the 16th century, someone in England finally wised up and started using it for culinary purposes, most likely because it bears a resemblance to its smaller cousin, sorrel, another tart and sometimes maligned delicacy.
Is it a fruit or is it a vegetable? Botanically, rhubarb is a vegetable, but the U.S. Customs Court in Buffalo, New York, ruled in 1947 that it is a fruit, since that is how it is normally treated. Rhubarb is mainly eaten in pies and is often referred to as the “pie plant” in this country.
I happen to love rhubarb not just because it’s delicious, but it’s even fun to say. I remember my high school drama coach, Mrs. Little, telling us to talk amongst ourselves in a crowd scene. When we asked her what we should say, she said, “Everyone just repeat the word ‘rhubarb’ over and over again and it will sound like a conversation.” It worked.
Several years ago, I organized a small rhubarb festival in Seattle open to other loyal rhubarb fans. I asked attendees to bring their favorite rhubarb dishes and we had an eye-opening assortment of both sweet and savory creations, from rhubarb upside-down cake to rhubarb curry. One person even brought something as simple as cut-up raw rhubarb stalks, like you would serve celery sticks on a crudité platter, but instead of a dip they provided a dish of sugar and a dish of salt, because that’s how they grew up eating it in their grandmother’s kitchen.
If you have rhubarb, enjoy it before the end of June. A good rule of thumb is to never harvest it after the Fourth of July. It allows the plant to grow for the rest of the summer and it will begin to store the sugars and nutrients needed to get through the following winter and produce well the next year. Harvest rhubarb when stalks are about a foot long. Grab the base of the stalk and pull it away from the plant with a gentle twist. Always leave at least two stalks per plant to ensure continued production and you'll have a bountiful harvest for up to 20 years without having to replace your plants.
I’ll leave you with a recipe for another delicious way to enjoy rhubarb in a very pretty pink concoction:
Makes 8 cups
3 cups sliced rhubarb stalks (about 1 lb.)
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup lemon juice, preferably fresh-squeezed
I have vowed to host another rhubarb festival someday. Perhaps Key Peninsula is ready for one?
Brook Hurst Stephens lives at Historic Faraway in Longbranch.
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