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Rhubarb Challenge

On May 17, 1910, the Grand Forks Herald took a forthright stance in defense of rhubarb. Its editorialist had tolerated recent Chicken-Little reports about the deleterious effects of the tail of Haley’s Comet, but when alleged scientific authorities commenced expounding on the dangers of rhubarb, he had enough.

“We are told that there is no possible doubt of the injurious effects of eating rhubarb,” he writes — effects due to the presence of oxalic acid. Dismissively he concludes, “There are pessimists and alarmists in every walk of life and thought.”

This editorial rant took place in May, which makes it perfectly understandable. Winter at long last had retreated, rhubarb had burgeoned and burst onto the ground, and who needs that sort of negativity? For by this time, rhubarb was well emplaced in the regional culture of the northern plains.

The first press mentions of rhubarb date from 1874, with reporters visiting gardens of horticultural pioneers and describing them with awe. Oscar Ward, just east of Bismarck, had extensive gardens including, we read, “rhubarb which had been cut back three times and still had leaves that measure two feet in width.”

The earliest plantings in Dakota Territory must have come as baggage; it’s pretty easy to propagate from divisions. By 1880 markets were advertising rhubarb that had been shipped in for local sale, but nurserymen offered divisions so that prairie folk could establish their own supplies.

And then the bragging commenced. In July 1884 E. W. Hagerty brought some leafy stalks into the office of the Cooperstown Courier. Measurement confirmed a leaf circumference of 10’1”. One stalk measured 6½” around and 2’4” long. “We challenge the world to equal this vegetable growth,” declared the Courier.

Challenge accepted. In June 1891 the Courier measured a stalk brought in by a Mrs. Ladbury, which won praise but was not quite equal to Mr. Hagerty’s entry of 1884. Over in Oakes the next month, W. C. Polka brought the Times a leaf with measured circumference of 16’. The stalk weight three pounds, but was only 5’¼” around.

From all this we perceive that bragging about rhubarb was more than a matter of an individual gardener’s pride or an editor’s injection of local color to curry reader favor. Rhubarb, standing up tall and weighing in heavy, represented something. It was a symbol of the abundance of the land. It was an immigrant which rooted and thrived, a model for the settler society.

Admittedly, rhubarb had its detractors. Its puckery punch is not for the faint of palate. Known as “pie plant,” some considered it a consolation prize for the lack of cultivated fruits on the frontier. Wrote the Courier in 1889, “The appetite for rhubarb quickly vanishes when berries and early fruit come in.”

Others, however, although perhaps drawn to rhubarb as a temporary expedient, became attached to it as a perennial gift. They exchanged recipes with enthusiasm--right down to present day, when Ritzy Rhubarb Secrets, that culinary classic issued by the ladies of Litchville in the year 2000, remains in print, revised and expanded.

I’m looking through these nineteenth-century recipes from Dakota Territory and thinking, this year, rhubarb marmalade.

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