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Nothing to rue about rhubarb

This hardy fresh fruit is a harbinger of sprin

We were walking the trails along the Fraser River the other day when we came upon a huge rhubarb plant, nestled amongst the tall grasses swishing in the breeze. With its umbrella-like leaves fanning out from the centre, it was pushing the grasses aside to make room for itself in that wild place.

There’s something very Canadian and down-to-earth about rhubarb.

As kids, we would see it growing in just about every garden. Because it took up so much space, it was usually relegated to a far corner back by the compost heap or even to a spot outside the official garden, strategically placed between the back fence and a wooden telephone pole so it wouldn’t get crushed by wayward garbage trucks or wild kids riding their bikes like crazy where they shouldn’t have been.

We didn’t know it then, but rhubarb is native to a mountainous region west of China, near the Himalayas, and the southeastern corner of Russia. As such, it seems even more typically Canadian, emblematic of all those hardy European immigrants who settled the West and were as determined as that plant we found on the shores of the Fraser.

My grandpa had several rhubarb plants and kept the entire extended family in pies. It popped up in early spring, the first fresh fruit of the season. Imagine how welcome it would have been after a long Canadian winter, before all the shipping of fresh fruits halfway around the world, in season and out, that we now take for granted.

I came from a seasoned gang of professional garden raiders and it was good to start practising early, even if rhubarb was the only thing in sight. If we were feeling particularly silly, we’d bust off the biggest branches we could find and parade around with giant rhubarb leaf parasols, fawning like women we’d seen in movies. More to the point, it was a badge of courage if you stole a stem of rhubarb and ate it raw, never-minding the astringent tartness that made your cheeks almost pucker off your face.

Better yet, sneak into a pal’s house and get a little cup of sugar to dip the stems into before munching, something my nan taught us to do. We were also told to never, never eat the leaves because they’re poisonous.

So go figure why, after World War I when there was a shortage of fresh veggies in the U.S., that a campaign was launched encouraging people to eat the leaves as a vegetable supplement. Many cases of poisoning resulted, delivering yet one more reason to always question authority. (People used to think that the toxin in rhubarb leaves was oxalic acid. But that same acid is found in the stalks and in spinach, which are definitely not poisonous. Scientists still don’t know what makes rhubarb leaves toxic. Just make sure you tell your kids not to eat them.)

Some families passed rhubarb plants along like sacred relics, carefully splitting the plants to share with friends and neighbours, or digging up parts of the root to take along with them as they moved from house to house. Strawberry rhubarb, so my mom tells me, was particularly valued for its bright red colour and its relatively sweet and juicy attributes.

Before the local strawberry crop ripened – who ever heard of strawberries trucked from California? – and delivered the other half of that perfect combo for rhubarb/strawberry pies and crisps, some moms would make strawberry Jell-o and stir in rhubarb that had been cooked to a fine puree. Serve with cream.

One German friend made home-made rhubarb juice, boiling down then straining out the fibrous bits and adding enough sugar and water to the juice to make it a pleasure to drink. Go one step further for rhubarb wine. And everyone knew that rhubarb was a "spring tonic", read: "purgative", cheaper than and as effective as any cleansing kit you’ll find at health food stores today.

In England, the culture of rhubarb as medicine goes back to the 1700s, when its purgative, astringent properties were "discovered" in western culture. For the Chinese and Tibetans had been taking advantage of its medicinal properties since very early times. One description in a Chinese herbal manual dates back to 2700 BC.

If you’re prone to kidney stones, check with your doctor. She may advise all rhubarb in moderation, since 40 per cent of the chemical that delivers the purgative properties is calcium oxalate, best avoided to prevent kidney stones. Note that the 40 per cent figure applies to one single chemical, not rhubarb stems in their entirety. Still, rhubarb is considered high in oxalates.

But that shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying at least one serving of rhubarb pie or crisp each spring. For to some fans, and I’m one of them, can’t you tell?, the distinctive taste of rhubarb is spring.

If you’re an avid pie-maker, you’ve probably already made at least one rhubarb pie this year. If you’re just starting out in the pie world, remember to mix extra sugar into the fruit filling to compensate for rhubarb’s high astringency.

If you’d never bake a home-made pie in a thousand years and still want to enjoy that wonderful down-home taste of something fresh-baked fresh with rhubarb, try this easy, fail-proof fruit crisp recipe, a trademark of local landscape architect Tom Barratt.

Tom Barratt’s Fruit Crisp

Mix 1 cup of brown sugar with 2 cups of flour (whole wheat or white, as you like). Rub in 1/2 cup of butter. Use a 9.5 x 13-inch pan and fill it about 3/4 deep with fruit, in this case chopped rhubarb (use skinnier stems; they’re younger, tenderer and juicier). For most fruits, you won’t need to add extra sugar to the fruit filling, but rhubarb will need about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of extra sugar mixed in to counteract the tartness. You can also mix in a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg, fresh lemon juice and/or vanilla as you like. Spread the crumb mixture evenly over the top and bake at 350 degrees for about half an hour. It’s done when it’s nice and bubbly. If you have extra topping, you can freeze it and use it later for a quick mini-crisp. And if you want a nuttier topping, try adding sunflower seeds, oatmeal and/or chopped nuts. Tom’s family’s touch: serve with Pacific evaporated milk and enjoy.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who still gets ribbed about her first rhubarb pie, which was insanely sour.