Rhubarb, Sour and Sweet
June brings in its wake the first beginnings of summer. Unlike the swelter of July and August, June brings in the summer sweetness of warm days and cool nights and the vibrant first blooms of summer. June also brings with it one of my favorite things: rhubarb.
When I was growing up in rural New Hampshire, my mom always kept a garden. Summer tomatoes, fresh herbs, and strawberries were things to look forward to as winter weather ticked closer and closer to spring and finally to summer. We’d plant everything just before Memorial Day (and by “we” I mean my mom) and patiently wait until seasons once again switched. New England winters are as notoriously brutal as they are unpredictable so you always had to cross your fingers hoping to avoid a freak snowstorm in May. But after May, without fail comes the kinder weather of June, and with the coming of the month I found myself in the back corner of my mother’s garden. My mom was always a meticulous gardener, constantly aware of all the plants that grew in her garden and just the right way to help them flourish. But, in one corner of her garden, one year a plant unfamiliar to me cropped up. My mom didn’t skip a beat though. It was rhubarb. Rhubarb that I had never had before, much to my mom’s amazement.
I say I grew up in rural New Hampshire with a bit of tongue and cheek. I grew up in a small town, yes, but I by no means grew up in the middle of the country. My mother, on the other hand, grew up on a working farm in the middle of agrarian northern Wisconsin. Her childhood landscape was quite literally in a rural farming community. Though I never saw it with my own eyes, I’ve been told that the gardens my grandparents kept were the stuff of legends. Because of the richness of the midwestern soil, anything that they planted thrived and seemed to grow into decadent jewels of fresh produce. But all year, they looked forward to rhubarb the most.
Most of what was grown in their garden were essential and contributed to whatever they were able to eat for dinner. In years when the apple and fruit crops were lean, having a large garden helped to provide some slack in summer and fall. The money saved from not having to get store-bought produce could later be used in the winter when there wasn’t an income-producing crop to be harvested. Most of what they grew was purely functional: vegetables and greens to serve with dinner or herbs to cook with and in the fall, plenty of squash. However, they also grew rhubarb. It wasn’t lucrative or plentiful enough to sell nor did it provide some necessary nutritional benefit but it was by far a favorite.
Through those first fine fleeting days of summer, they would make pies, crisps, and rhubarb jam. My grandmother is brilliant in the kitchen and has an uncanny way of making the most incredible meals and treats out of almost nothing. As a fruit, rhubarb lends itself to this style of cooking beautifully. The only distinct flavor of rhubarb is sour. Because of this, it is extremely easily paired with any other fruit. My grandmother in particular was fond of baking it into crisps. She followed no recipe at all. She would mix the rhubarb and whatever fruit they happened to have on hand and mix it with a bit of brown sugar and cinnamon and just a pinch of nutmeg (she claimed that this was her secret ingredient). From there, she would throw it in a pan and cover it in a crumble mixture of rolled oats, brown sugar, butter, and flour. After dinner, she would serve it up with a bit of whipped cream. If they were lucky, my mom and her siblings could convince their parents to let them have a slice for breakfast with a little bit of milk too.
But my mom’s favorite way to eat it was a little different. She told me that when she and her sisters were little, they would sneak off into the garden and smuggle the raw rhubarb stalks into the kitchen. Once one of them had located the brown sugar, they would take the broken end of the rhubarb stalk, coat it in sugar and eat it raw. That was how I came to try rhubarb for the first time.
Initially, I was skeptical. Any eight-year-old would reasonably be suspicious of chowing down on a hot pink plant coated in sugar. I’d also never heard of anyone else doing that before. However, as it does, curiosity took over and I tried it. The experience could be likened to that of eating a Sourpatch Kid for the first time but way better. Rhubarb on its own is intensely sour, worse than that of a lemon or lime. When that tang is mingled with the molasses-rich brown sugar, it goes down easier than the best candy that you could find at any candy counter.
Today, it remains one of my favorite things to bake with. Unlike lemons or limes, the sourness of rhubarb doesn’t alter the flavor of a dish, it just adds a welcome element of tang. After spending Memorial Day weekend with my family on their farm in Wisconsin, which today produces apples, lavender, and morel mushrooms, I was once again reminded of this favorite early summer treat. I was inspired to try making some classic strawberry rhubarb crisp in my Brooklyn apartment. I called my mom for my grandmother’s recipe and much as I outlined earlier, she did not provide me much by way of measurements. “A little bit of this, a little bit of that– just keep adding sugar until you can put up with the sour and mix the topping until it looks like it could be evenly sprinkled on top of the fruit.”
At first bite, I am transported back to my mom’s kitchen with my brothers, eating strawberry rhubarb crisp and ice cream in those first few days of June. Strawberry rhubarb crisp is one of those American classics that brings up summer nostalgia from years past. The sour and the sweet are the perfect mixtures to ring in the long-awaited beginning of summer. If you find yourself with some rhubarb this June, try dipping it in a little brown sugar. I promise you won’t regret it.