By Vicky Babcock
It is January. In an old shed near Wakefield England, a group of men move carefully among the rows of rhubarb, plucking the pink stems by candlelight. Most of the shed is in darkness and the atmosphere is hushed. There is an air of reverence here, as if some rude cathedral. If one listens quietly, states the farmer, Janet Oldroyd-Hume, one can hear the rhubarb grow. Is this some sacred rite from pagan days gone by—some obscure celebration of the solstice? No. It is the harvest of the forced winter crop, cast in darkness to encourage rapid growth. Oldroyd-Hume relates the tale that led to this remarkable scene. In 1817 or thereabouts, the legend goes, workers digging a trench in Chelsea inadvertently covered some rhubarb roots with soil. Upon removing the soil, they discovered that the rhubarb, seeking daylight, had grown long pink stems. “Luckily, it was Chelsea,” Oldroyd-Hume quips, “so they tasted them.” Ian Jack-the Guardian, January 2008.
Welcome to the Rhubarb Triangle—a 9 square mile area between Rothwell, Morley and Wakefield famous for its forced rhubarb.
Most rhubarb, as is Michigan’s crop, is grown naturally and harvested in the early to late Spring. The bright red stalks, native to China and dating back over 5,000 years, add a festive look to pies and jams and its tart distinctive flavor makes it an excellent choice for sugared desserts. Rhubarb was given the sobriquet, “pie plant” as it is a vegetable, but is treated as a fruit.
Before sugar’s introduction to the world, rhubarb was treated primarily as a medicinal plant—its roots are a powerful laxative that is still used today. As sugar became more available and popular to Europeans, so too did rhubarb. The vegetable lost favor during wartime sugar shortages—people grew tired of eating the plant with little or no sugar and so turned to other more costly fruits to round out their diets. It’s been reported that, for a brief time during WWI*, it was advised to use rhubarb greens as a food source in Briton—this was quickly rescinded as it became abundantly clear that the leaves are toxic to both humans and animals.
Ben Franklin was said to be responsible for the introduction of rhubarb to North America in 1772. And Marco Polo wrote extensively about this medicinal herb. In the late 1800’s, Russians brought the stalks to Alaska to treat scurvy as the plant is rich in vitamin C. Rhubarb is low in calories and high in fiber, making it a highly desirable plant for our diet as is. However, few of us can tolerate the bitter stems without a touch of sugar.
*Note: Although many sources state WWI, others state WWII. I even found a reference to Americans being advised to eat the leaves as opposed to the British. One of the sources that I would have trusted most contradicted itself within the same article.
Rhubarb Bread Pudding
3 cups bread cubes
3 cups chopped rhubarb
1 ½ cup sugar
¼ tsp. salt
3 eggs, beaten
1 stick melted butter or margarine
Combine—spoon mixture into 8×8-inch pan. Bake at 375º 40 minutes. This is delicious warm from the oven, but can be reheated or eaten cold.
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