Rhubarb's incredible story

Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Rhubarb plants grew at Janzow Farms.

On an early spring morning at the turn of the 19th century, a London nurseryman named Joseph Myatt sent five bundles of rhubarb stalks to Covent Garden to be sold at the fruit and vegetable market there. Only three bundles sold, but the next season, after advising his customers to cook the stems with plenty of sugar, he sent 10 bundles to the market and all of them sold. Before long, his sales had increased to the point that he was sending several wagonloads at a time to the market and rhubarb was on its way to becoming what one observer has called a British national treasure.

But in telling this story, Clifford M. Foust, author of the definitive biography of the plant, points out that this was actually rhubarb's second rise to popularity. For centuries beforehand rhubarb was sought after for its medicinal properties. In fact, calling it a "wondrous drug," Foust maintains, "In the history of therapeutics, there probably has been no medicine that has brought greater relief to larger numbers of people than has the powder made from the roots and rhizomes of medicinal rhubarb." No wonder, as Dale Marshall, an agricultural engineer at Michigan State University, observes, rhubarb powder was once worth more than opium. Moreover, it is probably safe to say that had it not been for attempts to grow the plant on European soil for medicinal use, it might never have occurred to people to cultivate it for its culinary value.

It's understandable that it took a while for people to take to rhubarb as something to eat. As Amanda Hesser of the New York Times observes, it belongs to that category of foods that by rights should never have made it to the table in the first place. Its leaves, after all, are poisonous and in its uncooked and unsweetened state it can only make you pucker. (Its pH can be as low as 3, the same as vinegar.)

Furthermore, rhubarb is unusual in that though typically cooked as a fruit, and thanks to a U.S. Customs Court ruling legally considered one, it is, botanically speaking, a vegetable, a relative of garden sorrel. Nonetheless, it is so often used in pies that in this country it is sometimes referred to as "pie-plant." Trendy restaurants, however, have increasingly been using rhubarb in savory dishes, pairing it with duck, pork, quail, fish, chicken, salmon, venison and lamb. Foie gras with rhubarb puree is on the menu at not a few swank New York restaurants.

The roots of rhubarb go back to about 2700 B.C. in China. As culinary etymologist Mark Morton explains, when the plant was introduced to Europe it was grown along the banks of the Volga River, then known as the Rha. Because the ancient Romans considered anything originating outside their empire to be barbaric, when the plant made its way to southern Italy they christened it "rha barbarum," a term that became the English "rhubarb" around the 15th century. The culinary variety of rhubarb made it to America toward the end of the 18th century when, it is said, Ben Franklin sent seeds from Scotland to a Philadelphia botanist. Others give the credit to an anonymous amateur gardener from Maine.

Though the word "rhubarb" is slang for a loud quarrel, there is no arguing that its red stalks, in the words of The Gourmet Cookbook, are "greeted with joy at the end of winter."

This dish of rhubarb chutney was shown in a field of rhubarb at Janzow Farms. (Diane L. Wilson)

Rhubarb Chutney

This recipe, adapted from Bon Appetit, is great with meat or poultry or served over cream cheese with crackers.

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/4 cup dried cherries

1/4 cup brandy

1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds

1/4 teaspoon aniseed

1 cup chopped rhubarb

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons lime juice

Macerate raisins and cherries in brandy for 30 minutes. Toast seeds and add to fruit mixture. Stir over low heat until liquid is absorbed. Add remaining ingredients and simmer until rhubarb is tender and liquid is absorbed. Season with salt and pepper.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs at 8:49 a.m. Fridays on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.

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