Have a listen before you read on. Be warned, though, listening to this on repeat made me feel so uncomfortable I came out in hives.
Can one identify with a plant? Because I do. Imagine you are a rhubarb plant enjoying two years of freedom in a field where you merrily photosynthesise and grow strong. On the hottest days, your leaves flop onto the cool soil of West Yorkshire, known as the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ ( or ‘Tusky Triangle’, from a Yorkshire word for rhubarb). Bees drink from the dew that collects in the crumpled pleats of your leaves. Your roots gather strength and drink deeply of the rain in this wet, damp, cool part of England. They spread. They take up space. Your stems grow as sharp and sour as a paper cut.
And then you are uprooted and transplanted into a dark shed with thousands of other plants, all packed in, cheek by jowl, to the extent that it is possible to hear the push, squeak, and thrust of your leaves and stems as they emerge, popping and jostling for space; stretching towards a sun that no longer exists in this strange new world. Your colours are more vivid, your stalks sweetly tender, but this is produced from confinement and not freedom. I could make all kinds of clumsy analogies with lockdown as we humans emerge in a tender state. Not as tough nor as fibrous as we were eighteen months ago, we’ve been bonsaied into a form that reflects our confines. As Larry Schug writes:
“Rhubarb plans ahead,
years, decades even,
lives sustainably in the interest
of sunlight stored under ground.”
A few weekends ago, on only my second trip to the coast since lockdown, I made a pilgrimage to Westleton Book shop, a decommissioned chapel stuffed to the eaves with thousands of secondhand, vintage and antique books. I have been planning my return trip since March 2019, and I lived off the interest of this imagined future during the lockdown. If you want to spend £40 on a book about the history of bitumen, this bookshop is where you will find it. There is even a shelf labelled “Afflictions: Living, Families...” which I love with the fierceness of a damaged child and feel compelled to photograph on each visit. The shop is a dark space, with the air of a temple, and when you are ready to pay, you bang an old olive oil can with a stick to attract the owner's attention. He emerges from a cluttered back office; you commune over the books you have chosen before returning to the white light of an East Anglian spring.
On this visit, I found a copy of Rhubarbaria by Mary Prior and the same edition of The Kingdom of Carbonel’ by Barbara Sleigh I owned as a child. The first paragraph of the latter was the inspiration for this newsletter:
“Rosemary Brown picked a stick of rhubarb from the end of the garden, and taking care not to spill the sugar in the saucer she was carrying, bent herself double and crept between the currant bushes. Then she sat down in the green cave made by the unpruned branches which met over her head. The ground was covered with coarse grass, and it made a very comfortable secret place. She dipped the rhubarb into the saucer and bit off the sweetened end with a crunch. In spite of the sugar, it was so sour that it made her nose wrinkle, so she licked the end of her finger, pressed it into the saucer and finished the sugar that way instead.”
I’ve always had a yen for sourness, possibly because my first taste memories come from Mexico, where I sucked on sweets made from tamarind and liberally sprinkled fruit cups with chile, salt and lime- or splashes of chamoy. I used to eat whole lemons, skin and limes too. Rhubarb doesn’t grow well in hot climates hence its relative rareness there, but I do not doubt that the sweet-sour-loving Mexicans would adore it. On a hot day after the rain has fallen, the air around a rhubarb plant is sharply scented with green. Oddly, considering this is a plant that likes cooler weather, sitting beside it makes you feel like you are in the sub-tropics. It looks and feels Mexican.
“We ate the rhubarb raw, stripped of all its leaves.
Dipped in sugar, it still lingered
bitter on our tongues as some inoculation
against the worst of what was yet to come. “ (Matthew Burns)
I like food that makes me judder a bit, so I have never dipped a rhubarb stalk into sugar, unlike Rosemary and Matthew Burns, and I was like this from a very young age. In his book, ‘Sour’, Mark Diacono writes, “despite a childhood largely dedicated to sugar and potatoes in all their glorious forms, it is the sour that I remember the most.” I have a ridiculously sweet tooth (well, I have an everything tooth, if I am honest), but it is sourness that I return to when I feel jaded. Like Diacono, if I am making a crumble for myself, I do not add sugar to the fruit because I need the tart contrast of rhubarb, gooseberries, Bramleys or cranberries against the toasted sugar of their crumble blanket. Going savoury, I am particularly enamoured by his rhubarb and radish salad in ‘Sour’, which has in its family tree, Jane Grigson on radishes from her vegetable book and Claudia Roden’s Moroccan orange and radish salad. He suggests a blood orange and cardamom vinegar to dress, and I can’t help conjuring up variations on his theme by deploying a rhubarb and rose vinegar on a salad of orange and radish. Or you can travel to Ukraine with Olia Hercules via her first cookbook, ‘Mamushka’, for a rhubarb and radish pickle, which will go with so many different things but in her book accompanies chicken liver and buckwheat.
In ‘Beyond the North Wind’, you will find Dara Goldstein’s tale of recipe development for a New York City hospital’s immigrant Russian patients who were failing to thrive on their hospital diets. Kisel, originally made from oats or split peas, eventually came to be made from fruit. Goldstein developed a version flavoured with rhubarb and thickened with potato starch (made and eaten in Finland). The patients devoured it, partly because it stirred memories of comforts lost to migration and illness and slipped down so easily. (You do not want to expend unnecessary calories while eating when you are unwell and old.)
Goldstein’s therapeutic use of rhubarb is a nod to the plant’s origins as a medicine. David Allen’s LRB review of Clifford Foust’s ‘Rhubarb: The Wondrous Drug’ describes rhubarb as “a purge exceptional in its gentleness (and thus safe for small children and even for pregnant women), it also possesses tannins that have an astringent, binding effect. In the days when purging and bleeding were the standard way of treating illness, a herb that had such virtue was bound to be in almost unlimited demand.” I didn’t find it too gentle when digging up my father’s rhubarb so I could boil up the root to make a potion with remarkable hair-lightening properties. I managed to swallow some during the rinsing process, leaving me with a sore stomach from its purging effects and a sore ass from the swat I received from my father when he saw what I had done.
For a long time, rhubarb’s medicinal effect caused it to be more prized than opium. First grown by the Chinese around 2700 BC, the roots were brought to Europe, probably via the Indian and the Persian Gulf, to the Red Sea and Alexandria in Egypt. There were other trade routes, too: Chinese rhubarb was transported via Moscow to the degree that a Russian rhubarb monopoly emerged. Aleppo in Syria became another hub port, handling roots that travelled by Persia. (I recommend reading ‘Rhubarbia’ for more on its history.) Parson Woodforde speaks of its value both as a medicine and as a culinary ingredient: in 1793, he writes of eating a rhubarb tart, and in 1802, he gives his servant a “small dose of rhubarb” to treat a cough. Let’s hope it was just a small dose because the combination of diarrhoea and a cough does not bear thinking about.
Here’s Horack on rhubarb’s laxative effects:
“Docks and white wine, if you should costive prove, with shellfish cheap, instructions will remove.”
And Mrs C.F Leyel in ‘Elixirs of Life’ tells us that “rhubarb is one of the best aperients for those addicted to dysentery or colitis.”
Kate Lebo includes rhubarb in her ‘The Book of Difficult Fruit,’ reminding us that its leaves, rich in oxalic acid, can cause kidney stones and severe gastrointestinal upset if eaten. Only the stems are safely edible. Sorrel is also rich in oxalic acid, and I had a friend who adored it. On the tube, as we returned from The Good Food Show back in the nineties, she demolished an entire bag of sorrel. She ended up with kidney stones. Indeed, the Historia Plantarum, first published in 1680, compares rhubarb to the not-dissimilar-looking sorrel. Lebo reminds us that some of the earliest recipes for cooking with rhubarb were recorded around 1730 in the American colonies and focused mainly on tarts, marmalade and jams. "Rhubarb pie is the secret of the good life. A taste of springtime,” said The Prairie Home Companion radio show; rhubarb was popularly known as ‘pie plant’ - in the USA and still is by many. Meeting our need for tangy fruit during the dark months of winter and the resulting hunger gap, those ruby red and green stems which push through snow and frost to revitalise our gardens and tastebuds are highly prized. However, you will never catch me tessellating pieces of rhubarb to make pies like this. As striking as they look, I can’t be doing with all that fiddling.
Matthew Burns won the 2010 James Hearst Poetry Prize with his poem "Rhubarb.”
My review of Mark Diacono’s Sour is here.
How Alaska Became Home to Humongous Rhubarb in Gastro Obscura.
Does rhubarb deserve its killer reputation? in Nat Geo.
Rhubarb: How effervescent sourness goes well with Indian recipes in The Economic Times|| Panache.
Bee Wilson on Kate Lebo’s ‘Difficult Fruit’ in the WSJ (£)
That Old Rhubarb in Saltwater Foodways.
I love the Short Stack series. There’s one on rhubarb by Sheri Castle.
Gunman jailed after hiding a gun in rhubarb.
“Rhubarb has a strong Canadian component”, writes Mary Leah De Zwart. “Amber Paquette, Historian Laureate for Edmonton, says rhubarb is a hallmark of Métis traditional food. Early European traders brought rhubarb crowns with them. Then the plant was brought across Canada by Hudson’s Bay Company employees (80% Indigenous) and cultivated in gardens for each fort and outpost. Homesteaders and pioneers also brought rhubarb crowns or seeds with them.”
I’ve never claimed to be anything other than basic, so of course, a link to the beloved children’s cartoon called ‘Roobarb and Custard’ is included.
Japanese knotweed is related to rhubarb, which apparently tastes like it. So cook that weed right out of your garden.
Where to find my favourite rhubarb pie recipes:
The rhubarb and rosemary streusel pie in Sister Pie.
Cathy Barrow’s ‘rhubarb and just a little strawberry slab pie with a butter and shortening crust’ can be found in her book ‘Pie Squared’.
Kate McDermott’s recipe for rhubarb and custard pie is in her book, ‘Art of the Pie’.
Patsy’s freeform blackberry-rhubarb pie is one of the best recipes in Ken Haedrich’s ‘Pie Academy’.
Simon Thibault’s rhubarb custard pie from his book ‘Pantry and Palate: Remembering and Rediscovering Acadian Food. His recipe for rhubarb pudding came from his grandmother Rosalie’s recipe notebook.
A divine recipe for rhubarb lassi in Good Health.
Rhubarb grows in Iran and is used in a stew called khoresh-e rivas.
For the pure essence of rhubarb, try Marie Holm’s raw rhubarb jelly from her book ‘Quivering Desserts and Other Puddings’.
Nigella has a recipe for pig’s bum in ‘How To Eat’, which enchanted me; I had to mention it when I interviewed her on stage. Part of a ‘welcoming January lunch for 6’, the pudding results from a conversation she had with Anthony Worrall Thompson about a rhubarb steamed pud he’d eaten at school. Find it on page 310. In her latest book, ‘Cook, Eat, Repeat’, there’s a recipe for ginger and rhubarb flapjacks I have made several times. It’s in the main body of the text on pages 131-2. (Nigella has 19 recipes containing rhubarb in this book and an entire essay about the fruit.) Here’s her rhubarb and custard trifle.
Khoresh Rivas (Persian Rhubarb Stew with Meat) from Azlin Bloor.
Rhubarb, the reverse tomato: Two recipes for early summer in Coquinaria (and a bit of history).
From Japan: A recipe for mock umeboshi plums using rhubarb.
In Mary Prior’s ‘Rhubarbia’, you will find a recipe for a cold rhubarb soup from Hungary, made with lemons and sour cream for a triple dose of the judders, then sweetened with cream, sugar and enriched with egg yolk.
A savoury soup and other 19th-century rhubarb recipes here.
National Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Day is on June 9 in the USA.