By Peggy Hanson
If there were such a thing as Midwestern soul food, humble rhubarb would be as essential to the pantheon as collard greens in Mississippi. Rhubarb stands for home. For the coming of spring. And for self-reliance and making do with what you have. There is a reason that Garrison Keillor has made it a personal icon.
Each year, just when I think spring will never come—rhubarb shows up in its little patch on the south side of my house, the first curled up leaf poking bravely up through the mud and snow. And I know that very soon I will harvest a few stalks and that spinach and scallions will not be far behind. Our ceremonial first rhubarb dish of the season comes in the form of simple sauce, served for breakfast. The pies, crisps, cakes, chutneys, ketchup, and smoothies come later.
Sometimes I fear that the post-baby-boom generation has not yet connected with rhubarb. Perhaps they deem it old-fashioned? Even irrelevant? Perhaps they simply lack experience with the pleasures of rhubarb? Or don’t know where to find it? Most large groceries have a few bags of rhubarb tucked in the freezer case. It seldom shows up in the produce section, except for a brief window of time when some lucky co-ops receive rhubarb from local farmers. Often, though, rhubarb found in the produce section of larger markets is imported from the Pacific Northwest and it’s quite expensive. Farmers markets are a good source for local rhubarb if you don’t have a plant of your own or a neighbor who likes to share.
When it comes to intergenerational transfer of rhubarb appreciation, I am trying to hold up my end. My grandsons are fond of my homemade grape rhubarb popsicles and their dad loves rhubarb pie. When they strike out on their own, I will try to make sure they have a rhubarb plant and that they will know how to use it.
Rhubarb is 95% water. It is a good source of potassium, vitamin C, calcium, and dietary fiber. It is native to China, where it has been used for centuries in medicine and folk healing. Don’t eat the leaves! They contain oxalic acid which is corrosive and toxic to the kidneys. (Don’t worry too much about this—you would have to consume about eleven pounds of leaves to achieve a lethal effect.)
Do you have rhubarb growing in your backyard? If not, I hope you think about getting a plant and starting your own patch. It is easy to grow. Even one plant can be very productive. Free food—what a good idea!
Peggy Hanson lives in Lanesboro, the Rhubarb Capital of Minnesota and home of the annual Rhubarb Festival the first Saturday of June. Her husband, Frank Wright, tends over 100 rhubarb plants in his garden just outside of Lanesboro. You can see his rhubarb garden and learn more about rhubarb by watching this YouTube video.