Or at least, MY story of rhubarb.
Dial back the rotary phone of your memory to the year 1982. The long Winnipeg winter was finally over. The six solid weeks of being bundled up literally to my eyebrows in the -20C temps had given way to the reluctant, cool spring of that part of the country. The ice rink my dad had made in the backyard had melted. And over the back fence, our left-hand neighbour was turning over the earth.
The Schusters were an elderly couple with an accent six-year-old Velvet had to work to understand. With my grandparents all in far-away Ontario, I cheerfully and unthinkingly adopted them as an extra set. He was friendly and kind to my brother and me, and my mom gently encouraged us to spend time there. When I asked her why, she told me they were holocaust survivors. I doubt she told me very much then about what that meant. In any case, adopting Mr. Schuster meant exploring the wonders of Mr. Schuster’s Garden.
He grew vegetables I’d never heard of and have only recently tried for the first time, like kohlrabi. He grew corn. The middle of each of his beds had tall poles for beans and peas. But most importantly to this story, he grew rhubarb.
I’ve since learned that rhubarb is basically a weed of a vegetable. It will grow almost anywhere and especially likes the spots no other plant will have much to do with. But at the time, those tart red stalks were a revelation. He showed us where his rhubarb had jumped the fence and started to grow in our unkempt, recently-dried-out ice rink lawn, and from that day on I was hooked.
Mom would give us a little Tupperware tumbler with an inch of sugar in the bottom. We’d lick the stalk, puckering up with the sourness of it, and then dip it in the sugar. I suspect my love of sour candy stems from those early experiences eating raw rhubarb from Mr. Schuster’s garden.
Dial forward now, past touch-tone and cordless all the way to smart phones, to the rhubarb that grows in my ex-husband’s front yard. I planted it there years ago, culled from the excellent plant that was spreading too much at my mother’s house, and it’s been happily tussling with the bindweed ever since. This year, there was a bumper crop. My ex’s partner is allergic to rhubarb, so I harvest it and cook with it and get my kids involved in all things rhubarb, partly for its own sake and partly so I can tell them about Mr. Schuster, kicking back at the darkness by planting a wonderful vegetable garden and grandparenting two lonely little kids far from their own family.
This is about a quarter of what I got this year. Some of the stalks were two inches around.
So, the first step in using this lovely vegetable is to find a supply. My preference is the forgotten corners of friends’ yards, but the grocery store will supply you in a pinch. It’s ripe when the stalks are tall, thick, and red. If you’re harvesting, take a paring knife and a big reusable bag. Chop off the stalk at the base, chop off the leaf at its base, drop the stalk in your bag, and compost the leaf.
When you return to your kitchen with your bounty, wash it all, chop it into one-inch pieces, and stew it in just a tiny bit of water until it mashes up easily under the spoon. Some people suggest adding sugar, but I never do because I want to be able to control the sugar in the finished recipe, and it’s hard to do that if I’ve added some at this stage.
Rhubarb comes ripe before any other fruit – it’s an early-spring vegetable though I’ve been known to get second and third crops out of it well into the summer – so I usually don’t cook with it immediately. This year, I got smart. Most jam recipes call for either two or four cups of rhubarb, so I decided to freeze it in paper cups from the dollar store that held one cup. I let the mushy rhubarb cool in the pot, then ladled it into my paper cups and covered it with cling wrap. I put them in the freezer in a single layer until they were solid, then stacked them. From that first batch, I got eight cups; the second harvest a few weeks later netted me another two. The three below are all that remain.
Recipes so far include the obligatory strawberry-rhubarb jam that I did a second time because it was so delicious, and a wonderful blubarb that I had the foresight to double.
We moved back to Ontario the following winter so I only ever spent that one spring and summer with Mr. Schuster. Being only seven at the time, I didn’t do a good job of keeping track of people in Winnipeg when I left, and I don’t know the rest of Mr. Schuster’s story beyond where it intersected briefly with mine. I like to think that maybe I gave him some gifts to balance the many he gave me.
Thank you, Mr. Schuster.