The cravings start in February, on those days when the teasing inklings of spring melt the snows around the base of the maple trees. Rhubarb. In late March (or into April), when the first nubbins of leaves push through the mountains of compost that were heaped atop the patch last fall, the itch for a piece of fresh rhubarb pie is almost unbearable. Sometimes, I succumb and pull out a bag of chopped ruby and emerald stems from the freezer and reach for the sugar, flour, butter, and speckled brown eggs from my clucking hens outside.
Rhubarb is the promise after the end of a long winter; an anomaly of crisp, tart stems sporting inedible leaves. Grandparents tell of walking through Mother’s garden with a bowl of sugar in one hand and a newly pulled stem of rhubarb in the other. Dip, crunch, dip, crunch…I can see their childish smiling faces smeared with hints of crimson and sugar crystals. It seems like it will be forever until the first strawberries ripen. But in this moment, the mix of tang and sweet are simply perfect.
Preparing rhubarb is part of a longstanding Northern tradition, with rhubarb and strawberry commonly wedded as jams or in desserts. But at our farm, spring hails the beginning of the fresh fruit season, marked by Grandma’s beloved rhubarb custard pie. Passed from mother to daughter in the German farming tradition, the crinkle-crispy top belies the richness in textures below; the tart tanginess of the ruby jewels softened by a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Perfect heaven for a hardworking farm girl.
For the many gardeners I encounter at the farmer’s market, growing rhubarb is either feast or famine. For some, their patches are taking over their yards, one end of the house, or looming like forbidding jungles in their memories of visiting Grandpa’s farm in the summertime. For others, countless attempts to establish these hearty perennials have been all for naught, much to their lingering disappointment. Rhubarb holds its own secrets, keeping itself much to itself. Unless it goes to seed, at which time my honeybees are quite happy to share an intimate acquaintance.
A pound of rhubarb stalks, wrapped in a colorful ribbon, makes a wonderful gift to a friend or neighbor. Fresh foods are the best presents because they keep on giving in your memory—as they are washed, prepared, and shared with others. Rhubarb crisp over a steaming cup of rich coffee or aromatic tea makes for great conversations and memories. If you are one of those poor souls whose attempts at growing rhubarb have been thwarted, there may still be one last chance for a stroll through the farmer’s market or a quick stop at your local farm to snag a late-season handful of long, slender stems. If you do happen to have some rhubarb handy, here is a lovely way to treat yourself on a warm summer’s day.
½ pound rhubarb, chopped into ¼ inch slices
A little water
Cinnamon to taste
Nutmeg to taste
Cook down the chopped rhubarb and water in a saucepan, stirring now and then to keep from scorching. When the rhubarb chunks are soft and making a red liquid, add the honey (the amount you choose will depend on how tart you like your sauce), along with a good dash of cinnamon and nutmeg. Stir and cook until fairly thick though still pourable. Serve warm on ice cream or over homemade pancakes or French toast.
Already reaching for some rhubarb or itching to go a-picking? Take some time this week to share your memories and ruminations on the simple joys of rhubarb, and we hope to see you down at the farm sometime. We just might have some rhubarb custard pie fresh out of the oven.
Laura Berlage is part owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com