Kate Flora: I’ve been busy in the gardens, weeding, rearranging plants, and evicting invasives, so today I thought I would share one of my late mother, A. Carman Clark’s, columns with rhubarb lore and recipes. This was originally a column in The Camden Herald and later included in her essay collection, From The Orange Mailbox.
We know that spring has really come to the Georges River valley when there are two rhubarb pies for dinner–the traditional old-fashioned kind flavored with a bit of grated orange peel and our own Sennebec Hill rhubarb custard pie with a sprinkling of fresh ground nutmeg.
Before this, when the first pink shoots appear, we enjoy sunny hours remulching the twenty-seven hills of rhubarb and adding fertilizer for the coming year. The winter’s accumulation of magazines and newspapers are lavishly spread between the rows; handfuls of a 5-10-10 commercial fertilize are scattered about to speed the breakdown of the paper; and the whole plot is covered heavily with bales of hay that banked the farmhouse during the winter. One pail of well-rotted manure dumped on each hill and we are ready for another year–a year of eating, freezing, selling, and inventing new recipes to use up the indefatigable bounty of rhubarb.
New England provides the ideal climate for growing rhubarb, and according to John Lowell, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, it was a Maine gardener who introduced rhubarb into America as a food plant. The history of rhubarb covers almost forty-seven centuries, going back to 2700 b.c. in China. Cultivated as a medicine for use as a purgative and a gastric tonic, roots at least five years old were sliced, dried, and then powdered. Early travelers carried the plant from China to Persia, Greece, and Russia; it was grown in the early botanical gardens at Padua, Italy, taken to England and Scotland, and then to America.
The garden journals of George Washington, John Jay and Thomas Jefferson record their planting of rhubarb, and in 1770, Benjamin Franklin sent rhubarb seeds from Scotland to his botanist friend, John Bartram. But it wasn’t until about 1780 that recipe books began to mention its use in tarts and pies. Probably because sugar was a scarce commodity in rural New England, it was after 1800 that rhubarb gained the Yankee name “pieplant.” Brides going forth to newly cleared acres took along a crock of sourdough yeast, a few cuttings of lilac, and a clump of rhubarb roots. Lewis and Clark carried powdered rhubarb root on their journey of exploration to the Pacific.
While icy northern winters killed fruit trees, the pieplant seldom failed to furnish the first fresh food each spring. Out on Matinicus Island, a clump set out by Iddo Tolman in 1858 is still growing, requiring only occasional fertilizing to nourish the crisp, tart stalks that are one of the culinary joys of the spring season.
Rhubarb seeds need to be planted in a place apart, where it will not be disturbed for years, and it needs full sun for at least half of each day. Healthy, well-fed rhubarb is a handsome plant and when set against a stone wall or the base of a shed or barn, the great spreading leaves fan out like rainforest vegetation. Rows of rhubarb can be set as a border between lawn and garden.
It isn’t necessary to be fussy. The quickest way to start a bed is to beg a few roots from a neighbor. Since the plants need to be divided or thinned every six years, most rhubarb growers will cheerfully give you enough to start your hills.
The roots should be dug and divided before the first leaves begin to uncurl in May. Spade up a clump and hose away the soil so you can easily cut the root mass apart, leaving one bud on each division. Plant the roots three feet apart with the buds set about two inches below the soil surface. Because a rhubarb bed is usually a lifetime investment, the roots should be set in good loam enriched with compost and old manure. But because rhubarb is such a hardy plant it will do well in almost any soil as long as there is good drainage and as long as it is fed annually with plenty of old hay or compost. Many rhubarb growers feed their plants by dumping kitchen scraps–peeling and other compost material–right under the spreading leaves.
There’s a local story about about a coastal farmer who once asked a neighbor for enough rhubarb for a bit of sauce. Upon being told there was none to spare, the farmer promptly went out and acquired enough roots to plant a 200 foot row. He allowed as how no one would ever ask him for a mite of rhubarb without being generously provided. Years later, when a younger man took over the farm, the roots needed dividing. With true Yankee ingenuity, he drove his plow straight down the middle of the whole row, split the plants in half, transplanted one half, and ended up with two 200 foot rows.
I once read that farmers in Afghanistan cover their rhubarb with several feet of gravel so that by the tie the shoots have struggled up through this, they are pale and very tender. By placing a chimney tile over one of my plants and pouring several pails of sand inside, I have produced a reasonably accurate facsimile of this method and found the stalks far more delicate than those of the usual plant. Another year I discovered a way to produce earlier rhubarb: placing an open-ended barrel over one hill and mounding manure up around the outside of it. I got tender ruby stalks weeks ahead of the rhubarb in the open field.
The best rhubarb for cooking, canning, or freezing comes from the long tender stalks of well-fed roots pulled between May 1 and July 4. After that, the skin gets tougher (although a well-mulched bed will produce good stalks for pie as late as August). One of our favorites is blu-barb pie, half blueberries and half rhubarb, invented in 1962 for the Maine Blueberry Festival.
Although rhubarb is a vegetable, it is generally used as a fruit–naturally enough since it is in season in spring when fresh fruits are scarce. Because it’s easy to freeze, it can provide a variety of desserts all through a winter.
Rhubarb should be pulled, not cut. Stalks should be be twisted sideways and pulled at an angle. Snip the leaves and the base of the stems onto the mulch around the plants. To freeze rhubarb, wash, dry, cut into half-inch pieces, spread on a cookie sheet and freeze, the move into double plastic bags.
Old-timers around this part of Maine (mid-coast) claim that rhubarb has a tranquilizing effect and surely almost anyone would agree that a flaky-crusted rhubarb pie can exert a calming effect at the end of a working day. But rhubarb is versatile and can be used in many ways.
Sennebec Hill Rhubarb Pie
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 t. nutmeg
2 T. butter
1/4 c. flour
1/2 t. salt
Stir into this 3 cups chopped rhubarb. Pour into pie crust, add top crust, and bake 10 minutes at 450, then 40 minutes at 350.
1 c. sugar
1/4 c. flour
1/4 t. salt
1 1/2 c. rhubarb cut in small pieces
1 1/2 c. blueberries.
Dot with bits of butter and bake 10 minutes at 450 and 30 minutes at 350.
Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
2 c. rhubarb
2 c. sliced strawberries
1 1/4 c. sugar
1/4 t. salt
1/3 c. flour
2 T. butter
Bake as a two-crust pie at 450 for 10 minutes and 30 minutes at 375.
4 c. cut rhubarb
1 3/4 c. sugar
stew gently for 10 minutes
8 slices of buttered white bread
Layer buttered bread and warm stewed rhubarb in a deep baking dish. Chill for 24 hours. Serve with whipped cream.
1/2 c. sugard
2 c. finely chopped rhubarb
Blend together and set aside:
1/2 c. butter
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla
2 c. plus 2 T. flour
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
Add alternately to blended mixture with 1 c. buttermilk
Add rhubarb mixture
1/2 c. shredded coconut
1/2 c. raisins
1/2 c. chopped walnuts or pecans
Blend together. Pour into a greased and floured 7 x 12 baking pan. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes.
2 c. blueberries
1 1/2 c. rhubarb
1 t. tapioca
1 1/4 c. sugar
Put this mixture into a buttered 2 quart casserole.
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. flour
1/2 c. oatmeal
1/4 c. wheatgerm
blend in 1/4 c. butter
Spread over fruit mixture and bake 45 minutes at 350. Serve warm with ice cream