In Praise of Rhubarb

We’ve been up in Iowa for the past week or so, visiting my mother.* One of the joys of a visit there in the summertime is her great stand of rhubarb. She has two types: a small, dark red variety and a larger, whiter variety. Both are tasty, though the darker one is what we prefer for pies and sauces. When we feel we’ve picked enough of it, though, we move over to the lighter variety with thicker stalks. The flavor is about the same; only the color is different.

Rhubarb is one of the strangest ‘fruits.’ It’s actually a vegetable, though you eat the stalk. Don’t eat the leaves; they are toxic. The stalk is very tart, so you need to cook it with sugar (or eat raw, dipped in sugar, which was a childhood treat). Therefore, it’s perfect for pies. One legacy my mom passed down to me was making pie crusts from scratch. This lattice pie cruse uses the quick and easy method of alternating strips, rather than trying to weave them together. It still turns out about the same, and the pie dough was very flaky. The secret? 2 cups of flour, 3/4 cup of Crisco, salt, and ice water. Adding about a tablespoon of Crisco to the standard measurement of 1/3 C per 1 cup of flour helps make it lighter.

Once we’d eaten the pie, we were in the mood for another rhubarb dessert. This is Rhubarb Angel, which has a butter/flour/sugar bottom crust with a merringue and a custardy filling: 3 egg yolks, cream (though I used buttermilk), 1 C sugar. You can tell that this was made with the lighter variety. Besides pie, this was one of our favorite rhubarb desserts when I was growing up, but the most common way for us to eat rhubarb was always as a sauce, which can be put on cereal or eaten by itself at breakfast or poured over ice cream for dessert.

Rhubarb sauce is just cut rhubarb and sugar that is simmered until it makes sauce. Let the sugar sit on it awhile before cooking, so it starts to form some juice. Kim made this in the microwave, which is Mom’s preferred method, though the old-fashioned stove-top method ought to work. I don’t know that recipe by heart, though it’s pretty simple and you could experiment with the amount of sugar you use to get the tartness you want. My guess would be 1/2-3/4 cup of sugar for 2-3 cups of cut rhubarb.

However you cook it, if you have a patch of rhubarb, count yourself lucky. It’s full of vitamin C and potassium, so it’s a healthy and refreshing summertime treat.

*As a side note, the decision to visit an elderly relative during the COVID-19 pendemic wasn’t an easy one. Even as we were leaving, cases were spiking in a number of states. We had self-quarantined for 14 days before we left, so we felt reasonably safe visiting, but we had a 14-hour drive to get there. With 3 drivers and few stops, we were able to do it in one day and with only a few restroom breaks at rest areas — the only times we went indoors. While there, we hardly went out at all, only driving to the neighboring town so we could get curbside pickup of groceries. Because we kept our exposure as limited as possible, we felt it was as safe as could be. That’s not 100%, but probably not any higher than her daily activities would be.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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