Sue Bowman Rural Ramblings

Will the rain ruin the rhubarb? What’s all the rhubarb about? How did a sour-tasting spring plant historically get to be such a topic of conversation?

The term “rhubarb” can be used as a colloquialism, or slang, for “hubbub” or “a heated argument.” While I have no idea where that connotation came from, I can say with some assurance that rain does not appear to ruin rhubarb. That is based on the rhubarb in our garden during last year’s record rainfall and a wet spring again this year.

We’ve had several rhubarb plants in our garden for as long as I can remember. My mother was a huge proponent of rhubarb — my father, brother and me, not so much. Her recipe collection included recipes for everything from rhubarb sauce to rhubarb crisp and rhubarb pie. She always touted its healthfulness, a characteristic that didn’t hold much appeal for my dad and the rest of us. We were much more interested in the taste. My face starts to scrunch up even now as I think of some of the healthy rhubarb concoctions she presented to us at the kitchen table.

If I had any rhubarb favorites in my childhood, they would’ve been the rhubarb sauce she made using a base of strawberry gelatin. The gelatin had plenty of sugar in it, which seemed to be the missing ingredient from most of Mom’s rhubarb offerings. I also enjoyed her rhubarb custards, in which the addition of ample sugar made a world of difference to my palate.

During most of the 15 years since Mom has been gone, the rhubarb has grown rampant and largely undisturbed in its corner of the garden. In its honor, I did name one of our Hereford cows, Rhubarb, because of her red coloring. Upon rare occasion, I’ll also venture forth to cut some of the pinkish-green rhubarb stalks, remove the huge leaves and make a pie. While Mom was a pie baker — she made three of them every Saturday morning to serve as our dinnertime desserts throughout the week — I always had issues making a decent crust from scratch and I hate the frozen crusts from the grocery store.

Meeting Dennis made me much more pie-friendly, because he introduced me to his late mother’s non-rolled pie crust, which always seems to turn out flaky and tasty. It’s just a matter of mixing together in a 9-inch pie plate these ingredients: 1-1/2 cups of flour, a pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons of water and 1/2 cup of canola oil. You just stir it around until a ball of dough forms and then press it along the bottom and sides of the pie pan. Voila! You have a simple and delicious pie crust. We’ve even used it to make corn pie when vegetarian friends have joined us for dinner.

I still recall the first rhubarb custard I ever made. Dennis and I hadn’t been dating very long, so I wanted to impress him with my pie-making prowess. On the Saturday afternoon I decided to try out a version of my mother’s custard recipe, Dennis and his son, Eric, were at my farm doing a little groundhog hunting. My pie came out of the oven looking better than I could have hoped for, so I was eager to share my apparent success with the menfolk. Imagine my surprise when I looked toward the field where they’d been in pursuit of woodchucks and saw a police car pulled up behind them.

To make a long story short, Dennis and Eric were unaware that my farm straddles two municipalities — one that allows hunting and one that doesn’t. Although the groundhog they’d shot lay dead in the township that approves hunting, they’d fired their shots from the non-hunting borough. As a result, even with my attempted intervention, their guns were confiscated by the police officer. I had to wait until the following Monday to retrieve them from the somewhat amused police chief, who I’d known for years. Suffice it to say that my rhubarb custard was better than their hunting experience.

I baked my first rhubarb custard of this season in late May to take to dinner at a friend’s house. I used the same recipe as that first time and it turned out reasonably well. I enjoyed cutting the fresh rhubarb in the sunshine and that it was still warm to the touch when I rinsed it off and cut it into bite-sized pieces in the kitchen. I felt like I was channeling my mother when I used some of the same bowls and utensils that she had years ago. The only difference was, I made sure to add some extra sugar.

Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.