Rhubarb Days

May 17, 2018

You can talk about your daffodils and your cherry blossoms, but this is the springtime emergence that counts: rhubarb. As the bulbs grow rank into stalks and leaves, there are two things I crave. I’ll tell you about one of them now, and the other in the end.

First, rhubarb crisp. I like the urgency of it. No time for rolling pie crust, we need to get this juicy green stuff into the oven, out of it, and onto a plate, pronto! Because rhubarb is not about patience, it is about immediate need. Throughout the central and northern plains, rhubarb, “pie plant” as many called it, served as a fruit substitute for pioneers.

About this time in 1880, the Bismarck Tribune reported, “Mrs. Thomas Riley has rhubarb, or pie-plant, in her garden that a single stalk will make an ordinary pie, and it is not a Mammoth variety, either.” Mammoth Red, by the way, remains today a popular variety.

That same year of 1880 Elder Inman, who sold agricultural implements and farm supplies and just about anything else you might need in Jamestown, was a veritable Johnny Appleseed of rhubarb in Dakota Territory. He advertised repeatedly, “Call on Elder Inman for all kind of Garden Seed, Horse Radish and Rhubarb plants now on hand.”

I quote these typical newspaper notices just to show that rhubarb was a horticultural staple of the prairie frontier. There are two reasons for the pervasiveness of rhubarb in pioneer communities on the plains. The first reason was impatience. It took at least a few years before fruit trees would bear much, but rhubarb likely would begin supplying you with pie makings in two years.

The second reason was environmental. The continental extremities of climate on the plains found many traditional fruit varieties wanting in hardiness. This necessitated a period of experimentation--during which time rhubarb proved its faithfulness.

In the nineteenth century rhubarb was considered a tonic, like other spring greens, to be consumed early in the season to get the system moving again. The story was told of the Duchess of Buccleuch, who offered a dish of rhubarb, a personal favorite of hers, to one of her tenants. To which offer he replied, “I’m muckle obleeged to your grace, but I dinna need it.”

The settlement period on the plains, too, was the time of the great newspaper debate as to the processing of rhubarb stalks for the table. Evidently it was common to peel the stalks, cutting away the fibrous elements. Health-conscious Victorians, however, advocated using the whole stalk, fibers and all.

Most preparation--for pies, cobblers, and preserves--was simple. The editor of the Hope Pioneer bragged in 1898 that while his wife was away visiting back east, he had turned out a “rhubarb pie that has never been equaled”--this after first sneaking into the garden under cover of darkness, dispatching the rhubarb with a club, and then hanging it overnight on the woodshed “until all the animal heat is out of it.”

That other delicacy of which I spoke at the outset, however, is an invention of my own household: the Lena Margarita. Rhubarb syrup and tequila with ice in a blender, the slush then poured into a chilled glass rimmed with lime salt. Be careful, it goes down easy.

This essay cannot close without a shout to the ladies of Litchville, North Dakota, who gave us that classic treatise in the culinary culture of the northern plains, Ritzy Rhubarb Secrets. This work should be a welcome wagon gift for all newcomers to North Dakota, so they will know what we are about.