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March 11, 2011

Rhubarb Summer

by Barbara O’Neal

My grandmother has been haunting me a little the past couple of weeks. I can almost smell her perfume some days.  A couple of days ago, I even found myself  taking down an old cookbook she gave me when I married, just so I could look at her handwriting. 


Then I realized that I’m starting to garden, puttering around with plans and making lists of companion plantings I want to try.  We have a big project underway this year, and I’m very happy about it.  

My grandmother, Madoline, was not a gardener. In fact, she insisted that she could not keep anything alive, and in terms of houseplants, that would be absolute fact. (She also claimed not to sew, which was probably self-defense in her generation.)

So I don’t know what possessed her to grow a garden the summer I was twelve. Maybe it was the slave labor available in me and my three siblings, marooned in the little town of Sedalia during the week while my mother worked. My grandmother was living in a rented farmhouse with an acre or so of land around it, and she got it into her head to plant a garden. 

And not just any garden. It was enormous, with rows and rows of corn and squash and tomatoes and lesser vegetables that have escaped my memory.  We were forced to help weed and water, me more than the others because I was the oldest and also liked my grandmother more than almost anyone on the planet, so more weekends than not, I stayed over. Our family had just moved to a new house in a new neighborhood, and I was lonely there.  Much more fun to read endlessly at my grandmother’s house, and hope for an appearance of my uncle Tex, seven years older than me, glamorous and wild and impossibly handsome.  He wrecked a motorcycle at one point that summer, broke his arm and skinned the flesh off several other spots, so was laid up on the couch at his mother’s house for a few 4572047065_fc06e91038_z days.  I was in heaven, fetching him glasses of tea and turning the channel when he wanted me to.  

Anyway, we gardened, my grandmother and I.   The corn sprouted high, and the tomatoes started putting out fruit.  Meanwhile, rhubarb grew to the size of small trucks, and my grandmother, who really didn’t can or even freeze food was left with cooking it into every variation of rhurbarb treat you could possibly name.  Rhubarb and strawberry crumble.  Rhubarb and apple crisp. Rhubarb cookies and rhubarb pie and rhubarb stew. 




Before that summer I kinda liked rhubarb.  It has those big shapely leaves and in my child’s mind, it was amazing that something just grew like a weed and you could just eat it for heaven’s sake!  When it’s raw, it has a sharp, sour bite like pickles and we loved plucking it to pucker our mouths.

But have you ever smelled rhubarb cooking?

It has been many, many years, but I can still put myself at the top of the stairs in that old house and feel surrounded and smothered by the stench of rhubarb baking. It was an odor with depth and power and weight, like a hundred sweaty shirts, like forty-three socks left damp in a locker room.  It almost had a color, a sickly acid yellow green that stained the air and stuck to my skin and was utterly inescapable.

3546366454_b1043ea9a0_z Until I retreated to the garden and the heavenly relief of loamy earth and tomato leaves baking in the sun.  My grandmother's orange cat, Goldy, who adopted her even though she didn’t like cats, wound around my ankles and stalked bugs through the corn. Whatever time of day it was, I liked the garden better than the smell of the house.

And that’s when I fell in love with gardens, growing things. I can’t remember how successful we were.  I’m pretty sure we harvested corn and squash (who could not harvest squash?) and maybe some other things.  I remember day-dreaming about the fallow side yard, another half acre that could be planted with something or another.  Maybe flowers, I thought, because my mother let me plant some bachelor buttons at the new house and they were pretty. 

My grandmother never planted another garden again, but that lone garden of hers provided me with a rich setting for a lost pregnant teen in How to Bake a Perfect Life, when Ramona and her aunt Poppy live in that very house in Sedalia and tend that very garden. Ramona shared a kiss with a boy she had a kiss on, but I never did. 

That accidental garden turned me into a gardener for life.   I’m not particularly talented, but there is something so soft and luscious and rewarding about the alchemy of earth and sun and rain, even hail.  At the end of a long day at the computer, my head is weary of words and it’s a relief to wander into the garden and admire a dahlia, shoot a photo of a squash blossom, pluck some weeds. It’s color and shape and mood, no words at all.  Novels also take a long time to grow and harvest, so there is a deep satisfaction in planting a seed and watching it sprout, then bear fruit.  Voila!

3606039502_a1b8f37a69_z The one thing I have never done, ever, since that summer is eat so much as one mouthful of rhubarb. This grieves my beloved very much, since he is English and they serve rhubarb all over the place there.  If you are like he is, you might like this recipe for Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble I tracked down for you, by Smitten Kitchen, whose photos are so gorgeous that she makes even me want to try it, though my beloved would say there is nowhere near enough crumble on that dish.  



I also understand that Nancy M has the All Time Best Rhubarb Pie Recipe in the world, her own mother's, so perhaps she will share that, too. 

Are you a fan of rhubarb? Gardens? What makes you think of your grandmother? 



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I am not a huge fan of rhubarb, although I think it is a nifty-sounding word.

One of my grandmothers baked bread every Friday. She gave away most of it, so I remember her kitchen counters covered with cooling loaves of bread. She also planted sweet peas along the fence in her yard. Those two things remind me of her.

My other grandmother created a bitchin' recipe for lima beans and chicken, my favorite meal. I think I will cook that today, and think of her. Thank you, Barbara.

Pumpkin pie. From scratch. Every Christmas, Grandma would bake and bake and bake and then she'd bake. Five rowdy grandsons and one granddaughter, she was a busy lady...:)

We're all glued to the TV this morning, aren't we? Sending best wishes to everyone in Japan and the Pacific. What a tragedy.

My mother's rhubarb pie is The Best. It will turn over your opinion of rhubarb, honest. The key to a *bad* rhubarb pie is corn starch. In my family, we are dead set against corn starch in pie. It just turns a pie filling to glue, and the smell, I agree, is disgusting.

So: Tapioca! For a 9 inch pie, cut up rhubarb in 1-inch lengths. Sprinkle a cup-ish of raisins and 3/4 or 1 cup of sugar over the rhubarb and then sprinkle some tapioca over that--maybe a couple of tablespoons, but not too much.

The key to a great pie, though, is of course the crust. That's the real talent. My mother's pie crust involved boiling water poured over Crisco, blended with a fork. Which is totally out of vogue now (when I saw Martha Stewart using ice cubes---yikes!) It's a very "short" crust and doesn't roll well, but it's by far more delish than Martha's version.

We want pix of your garden project, Barbara!

My grandmother baked Christmas cookies every year. December would mean a big box of cookies. My favorites were meringues with chocolate chips. They still are. My mother now bakes cookies from her mother's recipes with the princesses. The princesses favorites: Meringues with chocolate chips and the liquid from maraschino cherries and Buckeyes. Yes Karen, mom grew up on the shores of Lake Erie.

I love rhubarb! I never noticed a bad smell, but maybe that's just because I know what's coming out of the oven. Both of my grandmothers made wonderful rhubarb pies. One was a traditional pie, with plenty of sugar to tame the sour plant, and the other was a rhubarb custard pie. My favorite, however, is the rhubarb crisp my mom makes. It's as simple as can be: 1 cup each of oatmeal, flour and brown sugar, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 cup of butter, mixed together until crumbly. Press half into the bottom of an 8" square pan and top with 3 - 4 cups rhubarb cut into 1/4" - 1/2" pieces (small pieces are important - big pieces make a sour dessert). Sprinkle 1/2 cup sugar over the rhubarb, then sprinkle on the rest of the oatmeal mixture and press lightly. Bake for 45 minutes at 375. It's best served warm with vanilla ice cream.

People either love rhubarb or hate it. The first time my brother's first ex-wife had it she took a bite, chewed once, then opened her mouth and let it drop back on the plate. That should have been a sign, but he married her anyway.

After yesterday's discussion of ex-es and Facebook, I looked up one of the babes from English class back in the day. Suzy's face has a few wrinkles now, the body in the black bikini didn't look 50 to me.

My dad grew up in an orphanage and my mother's parents died when I was four, so I didn't know my grandparents, sadly. My Mom made rhubarb pie occasionally, but I didn't really eat it. My Dad had a sweet tooth, which I inherited (thanks, Dad), so we tended more toward the sweeter stuff - apple and lemon meringue pies, chocolate cakes, apple crisp, and cookies (my Dad's favorite were peanut butter).

I am just starting to learn to make my own pie crust, after having used the refrigerated ones from the dairy case for years. I have my mother's recipe (which also includes Crisco), and my results are still hit or miss. Hopefully I'll get it down - it tastes 100 times better.

LOVE RHUBARB! I have some in my yard, well underneath the snow somewhere. I have never noticed a bad smell while it's cooking. Next time I bake with it I'll be looking for it. I remember working in the garden with my grandma too. I haven't thought about that for such a long time. Thanks for reminding me. Good memories.

My husband and I have been growing a garden for years. We always say next time we need to scale it down. Every year we make it just a little bit bigger. Nothing is better than just picked from the garden. YUM!

My grandma (mom's mom) was a big stern german woman. She always wore perfume. I don't know what kind, but every now and then I smell it and think of her. Both are gone for a while now. Getting a little teary now, but for good things.

My grandmother wanted to be a good cook, and her meals were serviceable. Plain country cooking. Nothing bad, just nothing outstanding. Except for her pecan pie: a really thick layer of crusty pecans over a translucent custard and a flaky piecrust. Ummmm! Piecrusts are almost impossible for me because Crisco changed its formula a few years ago and I haven't mastered the new one.

What a lovely post, Barbara.

I had never tasted rhubarb until I was in my 30's! Then I took my first bite of rhubarb pie--straight rhubarb, no strawberries--and fell passionately in love with it. I hope I never smell it cooking!

My grandmas were gone by the time I was born, or around that time, but I had an aunt who was a great canner of things. (In Nevada, Mo., Barb.) I remember the dirt cellar and the wooden shelves where the glass jars all lined up.

Doc--that must be a good body for a woman to have the confidence to post a swim suit photo at 50!

I love, love, love rhubarb. Each spring I make the trip to garden soon after the ground thaws to see if the rhubarb crowns are bursting through the soil. We start to rob it for stewing when the stalks are around six inches in mid to late April. That's just for the taste of it drizzled over cottage cheese or on oatmeal in the morning.

Later in early May it's time for French Rhubarb Pie. A lovely recipe which came from a cookbook published by the Amish. It has a lovely custard taste with a crumb topping. Some of my new favorite recipes are for Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie and Sour Cream Rhubarb Coffee Cake. By mid June rhubarb is no longer really edible. It gets pithy and old and we stop harvesting.

We are so ready to begin gardening this year. The seeds we ordered have arrived, we've purchased onion sets for green onions and our onion plants will arrive in early to mid April, but unfortunately the weather is not cooperating. As I write we have been dumped upon yet again with heavy wet snow (6 inches right now with more predicted). This came after two days of heavy rain.

This same pattern has been with us for the past few weeks. No chance for the already soaked soil to dry out and that means our usual St Patty's Day planting in the cold frame is not going to happen this year or in the foreseeable future.

We planted 6 rhubarb roots last year. One is coming up this year -- damn the gophers and deer. We'll be ordering more this year as Steve loves really, really tart rhubarb pie.

Barb, you've made me recall my aunt and uncle's little garden in the back yard. Tall corn. Green beans. Tomatoes! Uncle Rex outside in coveralls. Aunt DeeDee in an apron in the kitchen. I loved them like grandparents. Thank you!

No tomato since has ever tasted so good as the ones, sliced thick, salted and peppered and arranged on a plate, that I slurped at Aunt DeeDee's kitchen table. Dripping with juice, luscious with flavor.

Have I told the story of the mirrored gazing ball my grandfather had in the middle of his magnificent vegetable garden? I'm sure I have. I was sitting on the glider on the back porch, and I exploded the gazing ball with my laser brain.

At least, that's what I thought when it happened. I was 6.

Forgot to say I've never noticed any bad smells coming from rhubarb as it cooked or baked.

We had a large property by the river when I was a kid.
My mother grew lots of flowers and fruits and vegetables.
Her rhubarb pie was sensational.
One time when I was about five years old I picked the flowers from the strawberry plants and ran up to the house with a bouquet of flowers.
She explained to me that we would have fewer strawberries to eat because of me picking the flowers.
She was a wonderful gardener and learned most of her skills from an older lady in her life.

I'm not a big fan of rhubarb as food, but it is an interesting and pretty plant to grow.

As for gardening, well, the gardening bug didn't just bite me, it got several thugs friends and beat me like a $5.00 carpet.

My addiction to putting plants into the ground has been at it's worst since we bought our house 12 years ago. I don't even want to think how much money has gone into plants, soil amendments, garden tools, etc. Probably at least a couple of good motorcycles or a '57 Chevy Pickup worth. This dollar amount wil only increase this year, since I'll be doing the Great Garden Renovation of 2011.

Rhubarb stinks. My Nana used to make rhubarb pie and I hated it.

The smells of cinnamon rolls at Christmas, "braids" - at Easter and chocolate chip cookies any time. Those are the smells that make me feel like my Mom's house.

Thank you, Kathy. I was starting to worry that I'm the only person who hates the smell. Maybe it's like the taste of cilantro--to some people it tastes like soap, while others love it.

Oh, yes, fresh tomatoes, hot off the vine! One of the best treats in the known universe. My big thrill last year, however, was potatoes. We harvested and ate them that night. The skins were practically purple.

The stink bugs that we're plagued with in this part of the country? Many people say their smell is like cilantro. ;)

We used to do a garden, but with both of us working and trying to take care of a house, it suffered from benign neglect, and our largest harvest was often weeds. A few years ago, we joined a CSA instead, and have the wonderful fresh veggies every week from May through November, all organic, and including heirloom tomatoes and buckets of raspberries, all for just writing a check. It works wonderfully. :)

Oh! and this year they're promising red, white and blue potatoes in time for July 4!

I am a lucky one who grew up baking with my mom, and my grandmothers at times. My first time making pie crust from scratch, and my mom swore it was better than any of hers. I dunno... :)

I was also lucky that my mom always loved gardening and canning and preserving. Tomatoes, red and black raspberries, strawberries, cucumbers and zucchini and more. And yes, even rhubarb.

I absolutely love my mom's strawberry rhubarb pie. Just the perfect match of sweet and tart. Hmmm, I wonder if she has any rhubarb in the freezer? LOL.

Here is a recipe that she gave me for an easy rhubarb dessert cake...kind of along the lines of a dump cake. I definitely liked it with the strawberries.

Rhubarb Dessert

4 cups chopped rhubarb
1 cup sugar
1 pkg (3 oz) strawberry jello
1 1/2 cups water
1 pkg white or yellow cake mix
1/2 cup butter

Place rhubarb in 13 x 9 x 2 pan.
Sprinkle sugar and gelatin over top.
Add water and sprinkle cake mix over top.
Top with melted butter.

Bake 45 min in 350 degree oven.

Notes: You can do half recipe by using the small box of cake mix and 3 Tbsp jello and use an 8 in square pan.

Possible modifications: Add 1 cup (or more) halved strawberries to the rhubarb, and proceed.

Laura, that definitely works, too, and gives steady work to organic farmers.

One summer in Minnesota, a friend pointed out rhubarb growing in a neighbor's yard. I had never tasted it, so as in Rapunzel, I snuck out at night and cut a stalk. The next morning, the neighbor had put a whole pile of rhubarb, carefully laid atop newspaper, on our front steps. I made a pie, not bad, and should have taken him a piece, but I was far too embarrassed.
A friend who hates rhubarb loves this story -- "She actually STOLE rhubarb!!!"

Barbara, thank you for sharing this story. I particularly like knowing the inspiration for Ramona since I loved How to Bake a Perfect Life.

I have so many food and cooking memories of my Grandma Stella. (Nana Boyer was a decent, precise cook, but not into it like the Sicilians.)

Long before supermarkets started selling "fresh" pasta for lofty prices, Grandma made her own every Sunday. While the tomato sauce simmered on the stove, she hand mixed her dough, rolled it out, and then cut it into skinny strips that she'd spread out on clean dishtowels until it was time to slip them into the pot of boiling water.

Grandma also taught me to make her version of Cucidati -- a Sicilian fig cookie. For years, I was the muscle that turned the crank on the old, old grinder to grind up the figs, dates and walnuts. We then mixed in honey and some orange juice. Grandmas also made the short, sweet, dough by hand so she could feel the buttery texture. Then we rolled it out and wrapped it around cigar-like rolls of the fruit/nut mixture.

When that melting fig aroma filled the house, I swear that other family members would stop in their tracks and inhale the scent.

These were my father's favorite cookies. One year we lived in France and Grandma sent him over a big batch. He turned into a cookie miser, allowing each of us one cookie a night to make them last.

I usually make the cookies around Christmas time although I've modernized the process with a food processor. I still do the dough by hand, however, so that I can feel if the texture is right.

What reminds me of my grandmother? Card games and Alfred Hitchcock. And homemade brown bread, the recipe of which died with her. Also housedresses and aprons and the song, "You Are My Sunshine." (sniff.)

Beautiful blog, Barbara. My 8-year old son is a gardener too, in a family of non-gardeners. I'm thinking that in a past life he was Mr. Green Jeans.

Housedresses! Harley, let's bring back that fashion! Wouldn't they be comfy and useful and easy to wash. My grandmother and her sister, Nelle, used to compete in growing their nails and wearing the most stylish housedresses. "Stylish" being a relative term.

I think Mr. Green Jeans was from the same era.

My grandmother suffered horribly from Rheumatoid arthritis so the only fun we had together was playing cribbage. I still love that game. But her "sister" loved to spend time with me, she taught me to cook and to knit and to enjoy whatever we happened to be doing. I looked forward to her yearly visits but I was the only one in the family who did. My mother resented the interference this older, childless woman had had in her life from her teenage years on. She could never accept that Aunt Liz and I enjoyed each others company; and though she never undercut our bond she never understood or approved of it. When Aunt Liz passed away the bulk of her estate went to my grandmother. In the will was 50 pounds each for her granddaughter and great-granddaughter, my mother and me. My mother was furious that her grandmother had been passed off as an aunt all those years. Forty five years later, I still miss my Aunt Liz.

I didn't know my dad's parents and would have gladly done without knowing my mom's parents so no happy memories of grandparents cooking or gardening.

My dad did garden, for vegetables, no flowers they weren't useful . . . We did make jelly and canned pears. I remember rhubarb straight from the garden stick the end in sugar and eat! Yep, stewed rhubarb is stinking cooking. Warm stewed rhubarb and strawberries on vanilla ice cream!

When my family gets together at Knott's Berry Farm for their chicken dinner they serve stewed rhubarb as a side dish. Others around the table choose coleslaw but I want to bring back memories of having rhubarb once again.

I love strawberry rhubarb pie! Such a lovely post. Unfortunately, I was raised 6 stories up in New York City, so I didn't have a garden until I was a grown up (ha). I had tomatoes, corn, zucchini, and more zucchini, and eggplant. I was the only one in the family who ate that so I never saw so much eggplant, and gave it away. It looked pretty when it was growing. I remember more about my mother cooking Viennese dishes; even now I can taste the food. Such a nostalgic post.

Nancy, I happen to own a house dress that belonged to my grandmother. When she died, numerous house dresses, nightgowns, slippers, robes that had been given to her over the years as Christmas and birthday gifts, were found in her closet--untouched. They were divvied up between the girl cousins. Lucky us.

Mine has a lace collar and is covered in teapots. I have never worn it.

That description of the SMELL -- the STENCH---HA THAT WAS SO VISCERAL! My dad loves it -- I have never eaten it. Now I think maybe I will pass

PS But Mary I will try the FIG COOKIES, thanks much!

I would love the recipe for fig cookies! I am a true cookie monster and I love dates and figs.

Ramona, I bet you'd look pretty damn hot in a lace-collared, teapot-covered housedress.

We had a garden most of the time I was growing up. Now I don't really have the room for anything more than some herbs, and some container plantings. But we have a killer state farmer's market so I don't much miss it.

My grandmother was the premier baker in town. Nobody could do pies like she did and one of her best was rhubarb custard.

While rhubarb can smell, I'll take that anyday over my grandmother's OTHER best dish. She grew and prepared her own horseradish. You could tell when she was doing it from 3 blocks away...and my room was over the kitchen. My biggest want in those days was a gas mask.

I am completely heartsick watching the devastation in Japan. Prayers go out to the victims of such a horrible scene repeated in so many areas of Japan.

Rhubarb, beets, and chit'lings. 3 foods I'll never eat.

But Carol R., I adore cribbage almost as much as Scrabble. Even used a cribbage tournament as the murder scene for THE RIGHT JACK. The cribbage board explodes!

I'm with Harley, I think Ramona in a teapot covered house dress is so awesome there should be pictures posted!

Both grandmothers were voracious readers. From my maternal grandmother, I shared her Alfred Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, and John D. MacDonald books. From my paternal, I got Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt and other gothic mystery writers.

Don't remember anybody making anything with rhubarb. I guess I should be glad. :)

Ramona, I'd like to think there might be something sweet one could do with that teapot dress.
Now I'm thinking of my grandma's coffee cake, and all the crocheted lace edging she did . . .

Not. Rhubarb. Up there with saurkraut.

I am just reading these lacy teapot dress comments. Y'all are crazy.

Green apples...whenever I feel my grandmother around me, I smell green apples on the air. She taught me to crochet when I was four years old, and taught me to paint in oils at twelve. Whatever creative endevour she and granddad were into, I learned too: everything from lapidary to woodworking to cooking. I remember her plum puddings at christmas and how she iced wedding cakes in white lace as a favour to friends and family. Grandma left me with a lingering legacy of creativity. My mother and sister got the gardening genes and I got the cooking and painting ones. However, I love gardens, and I loved my grandmothers. My mother has taken a cutting of a particular flowering tree with her every time the family moved and has planted it, and watched it grow everytime...for thirty years. Grandma is still missed all that time, by all of us.

Thanks for a lovely, moving blog post.:-D

I am late to the party, just found this wonderful blog and am enjoying catching up with one of my favorite authors. I remember baking brownies with my Grandma and being lucky enough to have the recipe. She has been gone since the late 70's but I believe I get some of my passion for cooking and baking from her.

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