It is not too much of an exaggeration to make a case that rhubarb, that earliest of springtime perennials, is the ultimate New England plant.
Just consider: rhubarb is both hardy and stubborn, and once established in our rocky soil, it is there for the duration. A traipse around Maine fields may well turn up the sites of once-proud farmhouses, all but vanished except for the foundation stones and the rhubarb patch. And rhubarb, so sour it’ll make your mouth pucker, is an acquired taste.
It needs a lot of sweetening to make it delicious, but for those that love it, part of the excitement of spring is the chance to use rhubarb’s sour-sweet, stringy stalks in pies, crisps, coffee cakes, shrubs and much more.
“If anybody can make a rhubarb taste good, it’s got to be a Yankee,” Sandy Oliver, Maine food historian and longtime BDN cooking columnist, said. “They’re not going to give up.”
In short, although rhubarb has not always been here, it has become a reliable part of the Maine spring landscape, its luxuriant unfurling green leaves as welcome in dooryards as the treats made from its stalks are in our kitchen. How this humble yet emphatic plant wound up in New England is a story worth telling.
“Rhubarb is marvelously resilient,” Oliver, who has two different rhubarb varieties in her Islesboro yard, said. “It’s really a wonderful plant.”
That “wonderful plant” likely made its way to North America in the 18th century by way of China, where it originated, and Russia, where it was an important export. At first, it was valued only because the root was used as a medicinal herb, primarily to treat gastrointestinal complaints (the leaves are somewhat poisonous and are not edible).
There is a story that an unnamed Maine gardener obtained seed or root stock from Europe in the 1790s or so and then introduced it to growers in Massachusetts. But Oliver thinks that story is not correct. Rhubarb was around for years before that, she said.
“I think it was probably brought here by a gentleman farmer somewhere in the Boston district,” she said. “They were the elite class. They had greenhouses, asparagus beds and all that stuff. They sort of prided themselves on acquiring new and different vegetables. I suspect it was one of them that acquired some of it and brought it back.”
Rhubarb’s medicinal usage ruled the roost for decades, and Maine midwife Martha Ballard of Augusta cited it 23 times in her diary in the late 1700s, Oliver wrote in a 2015 article about rhubarb published in Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors Magazine. Ballard used it 22 times as a medicinal and just once in the kitchen, when she baked it into a tart. Rhubarb, which later became known as “pie-plant,” did not really become popular for cooking until the mid-1800s.
That wasn’t coincidental, Oliver said, adding that it wasn’t until the production of mass-produced granulated sugar that rhubarb could be sweetened less expensively.
“It takes a lot of sweetener to sweeten it up,” she said. “Otherwise you’ll be puckered up for weeks.”
In the last half of the 19th century, that sweetened rhubarb was mostly used in pies and pie variations such as “slump, crump and dump kind of things,” Oliver said. By the 20th century, rhubarb moved into other dessert foods such as crisps and coffee cakes.
More recently, some experimental gourmands have successfully incorporated it into savory dishes, and its ruby stalks have shared dinner plates with chicken thighs, pork tenderloin, pasta and more. Some rhubarb fans can go too far, Oliver feels.
“I have neighbors who say they like to dip it raw into sugar and eat it like celery,” she said. “I think that’s terrible. I just can’t imagine it.”
But when it comes to sweetened rhubarb creations, Oliver is all in.
“I make a lot of crisps — people here like a lot of crisps,” she said. “It’s a beautiful plant, and the flowers are gorgeous. That’s something I always tell people — you’ve got to pick the flowers, otherwise the plant goes to hell. And it’s really worth it to keep rhubarb going.”
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