The Fruit that Pinches Your Cheeks from the Inside

Last summer I learned that the “barb” in “rhubarb” is the same as the “barb” in Barbarian, which is a term the Greeks came up with for anyone who was not Greek. Depending on which dictionary you consult, “rhu” refers to the name of the river on whose banks it was originally found or to its purgative properties. So, to summarize, the name of this plant captures its medical origins as well as its outsider status. For almost five thousand years, rhubarb has been slowly marching toward my back yard, hand to hand, rootball by rootball, from root shavings to chutney to pie filling to carbonated soda. Despite a somewhat complex reputation, it keeps a place in our culinary and botanical network.

Societies have an interesting relationship with outsiders: as the etymology of “rhubarb” shows, we make sure to let them know they are different from us; but when we think nobody’s looking we sneak to the back fence and hold hands, or in the case of rhubarb, swap seeds. Scholars have documented this plant as far back as 2700 B.C.E., though for much of that time people used only the roots to cure tummy aches and discarded the stalks and leaves. In An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage reports that rhubarb was one of several “spices” traded along the Silk Road as of the second century B.C.E..

My overheated imagination summons a pair of traders standing in the shade of their pack animals, a ceramic pot full of rhubarb preserves heavy in the hands of one and the other wincing as the tartness of the compote seizes his mouth. Or maybe rhubarb got sold as poison. Eleven pounds of the leaves will deliver a dose of oxalates strong enough to kill. Which is why deer don’t eat it and, therefore, why it is visible on working and abandoned farmsteads throughout the Upper Midwest.

Rhubarb, then, is a tough outsider that has managed to colonize the American landscape in a way them Greeks never quite managed to colonize Central Asia. The plant has remained of interest to humans because of its flexibility; once medicinal, it now provides a tart-sweet finish to a meal, and once local to Siberia, it now dots northern North American landscapes (sometimes quite anonymously), because the north provides enough cold to break dormancy and enough summer cool to allow gradual growth.

Each spring, pretty much as soon as the snow recedes, I begin checking the rhubarb patch. I check all of the perennials, in fact, because I never tire of watching plant bodies force their way out of the soil. Part horror movie, part miracle of nature, the stretching of plant fiber as the soil warms seems so improbable, especially in Northern Wisconsin, where frost locks up the soil for months on end. In early spring, as the first few leaves breach the surface, I realize that the rhubarb knows a world inhospitable to me, a world as strange as the ocean or space, a nearby world whose alterations and dramas are barely apparent to me as I sleepwalk through my preferred element of air.

In the past five years, my husband and I have picked somewhere around fifty stalks a year. In cool springs, I bake a lot when the rhubarb is fresh and we barely have any left to freeze. But during the springs when I don’t feel like turning on the oven, I microwave or stew it and it seems to retain its flavor well in the freezer.

If you do an internet search with the phrase “food as medicine,” you will see ample evidence that, as a culture, we are presently in the process of answering some basic questions about why we put stuff in our mouths and chew it. The flippant answer, of course, is to stay alive. This is also a paradoxical answer, since so much of what we eat is unhealthy.

Judging from the amount of sugar called for in many rhubarb dessert recipes, people who prepare rhubarb (or at least recipe writers) dislike its flavor. I met a woman in a cemetery on Memorial Day in the early 00s, who not even liking the looks of it recommended that I add red food coloring to the recipe she dictated to me as we waited for the ceremonies to begin.

Rhubarb CrispI, however, am fond of rhubarb’s flavor, perhaps because sweet sits lowest on my flavor totem pole. I am also fond of foods that defy boundaries, ones which grab an eater’s cheeks and pinch them from the inside. That rhubarb began its relationship with humanity as a medicine, one that forced us to disgorge the contents of our stomachs no less, makes me chuckle.  Just as it fights its way out of the ground at the end of winter, rhubarb demands the respect of our palates. It tells my stomach what’s happening in the ground near my house, without my conscious mind getting a word in edgewise. That, too, makes me smile.

See one of Joan's favorite and easy recipes for Rhubarb Crisp.