Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbour's Rhubarb

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, July 2, 2014 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.
(A note from me: I realize we're into strawberry season now and I'd planned to write about rhubarb earlier but needing to respond to the RCMP shooting in Moncton bumped that column back a couple of weeks.)

When I first moved to my husband’s rural property in Cumberland County, there was rhubarb growing alongside the garage. I ignored it until he installed a clothesline off the end of the garage. 
The rhubarb, growing wild and huge, was in the way so I had him dig it up. 
Stupid, stupid city girl.
(Not even using a clothesline can redeem that.)
Now, seven years later, I am planting rhubarb again, and not in a spot nearly as good as alongside the garage, because I am wishing we had a rhubarb patch, something growing huge but not so wild, the way every respectable country home does. 
(Clothesline good, rhubarb patch better.)
I suppose those of you who are out there hacking away at a giant rhubarb root, wondering if you’ll ever be rid of this tough vegetable-that-we-treat-like-a-fruit, are now cursing me for saying your rural landscaping must have it.
When you look up rhubarb in a book or online, you may be surprised at the detailed care instructions. You’d think rhubarb was the orchid of the vegetable-as-fruit world, all tender and fragile, but perhaps country rhubarb grows as hardy and resilient as the country folk who anticipate those first tart bites of rhubarb crisp every spring.
It’s like I’m channelling fellow columnist Marilyn Williams when I say, Boy, did I ever crave rhubarb this spring! I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Which is a good thing since I learned that five pounds of rhubarb stalks yield 20 cups of chopped rhubarb.
I wasn’t always a fan of rhubarb; given a choice, rhubarb-whatever was never my first pick at the dessert table.
Stupid, stupid city girl.
Thankfully, stupidity can be overcome with age and wisdom. And a good memory.
When I was a kid, the women of my mother’s family gathered for a week every summer for the annual Hen Party at (great) Uncle Everett’s cottage in Coboconk, Ontario. These parties all blur together in a mix of hot, dry days, laughter and food, swimming in the lake and going into town for an ice cream cone but I do remember  clearly my great-aunt’s stewed rhubarb. 
Since she was diabetic, she made it without sugar. 
There was a contest among the young cousins: Who could eat the most bowls of Aunt Mill’s diabetic rhubarb that was so tart, your face puckered? 
For some reason, perhaps because I like a challenge, I won. 
And even though I didn’t throw up afterwards, it was many, many years before I ate rhubarb again. Yet in that memory, rhubarb and Aunt Mill are connected in the nicest possible way. 
(The plant is tough and tart and underappreciated; my great-aunt was sweet and lovely, gone too soon and dearly missed.)
There isn’t any explanation for why this long-dormant obsession with stewed rhubarb erupted this year. All I know is I’ve become obsessed with redeeming myself for destroying a well-established although neglected patch that would have  been the envy of any rhubarb aficionado, particularly those who prize what is considered “heritage” rhubarb: the good, old-fashioned kind that hasn’t been messed with in a laboratory.
I will do what any self-respecting city girl does in this situation: I will covet that patch my country neighbour (a.k.a. my husband’s sister-in-law Joan) has, a flourishing patch of heritage rhubarb that dates back to the days of our husbands’ grandparents, then creep into the patch after dark and steal a few crowns for my own. 
Oh, right. It’s rhubarb. You don’t have to steal it. People will give it to you. 

Helping myself to the Mattinson Heritage Rhubarb!

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