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Food for Thought

My mother and grandmother called it pie plant. That pretty much says it all – they almost exclusively made it into pies. It was a rare day when rhubarb appeared on the table in any other form. Once in a great while, there would appear a dish of pinkish, stringy-looking something – a sort of puckery, sweet and sour sauce that we generally turned up our noses at. If I couldn’t have my rhubarb baked into a pie, then I preferred to take myself to the garden, brace my taste buds for the shock of pure acid, and eat the stuff raw, feeling very daring and superior to my wimpy sisters who screwed up their mouths, squinted their eyes and said “eeuw!” as they watched me munch on the tart, juicy stems.
I never heard of such a thing as combining strawberries and rhubarb in the same pie until many years after I was grown. I remember a variety of very slender, dark red rhubarb that was called Strawberry Rhubarb. It made beautiful pink pies all by itself, which were often called Strawberry-rhubarb Pie to distinguish them from those made with the coarser, paler varieties. I’ve often wondered if the popular practice of combining rhubarb with strawberries resulted from a misunderstanding about just what strawberry rhubarb really was. On the other hand, since strawberries are about the only fruit or berry ripe when rhubarb is in season, it seems logical that someone would have decided to combine the two for one reason or another. Maybe it was no more than just some adventuresome cook’s experiment to create a different flavor combination. Whatever the reason, I think it’s a waste of good strawberries – the two flavors are more distinctive on their own and cooked strawberries (except in jams and jellies) turn me off.
All rhubarb recipes seem to require ample amounts of sugar, of course, and I gave up rhubarb twenty-some years ago while I was cooking for a family that included a diabetic. It’s nearly impossible to do anything satisfactory with rhubarb using sugar substitutes. During those years, I let my own rhubarb patch go by the wayside through a combination of neglect, too much shade as nearby trees continued to grow and, ultimately, the lawn mower. I may have to start a new patch, as I’m beginning to miss some of the things I learned to make beyond the ubiquitous rhubarb pies of my mother, grandmother and aunts.
A family favorite was a sort of rhubarb crisp made with beaten egg and seasoned with nutmeg, similar to the Ox Yoke Inn’s famous creamy rhubarb pie. And I remember a delicious orange-rhubarb jam that got its distinctive flavor from those candy orange slices. I don’t have an exact recipe, but anyone used to making preserves from fresh berries and other fruit knows that amounts are only approximate, as the water content of fruit varies considerably. A good rule of thumb is to start with six cups each of sliced or diced rhubarb and sugar. Combine these, add a dash or two of salt, and chopped or ground candy orange slices. (I’ve always just used the 10- or 12-ounce bag of candy you buy in the grocery store.) Let set, refrigerated overnight for juice to develop. Cook slowly, stirring often until mixture begins to thicken. Test by placing a spoonful on a saucer. When it no longer separates with a watery ring, the jam should be thick enough. Pour into jars and seal.
If you’re one of those people who happen to like strawberry-rhubarb pie, you might enjoy this modern version of an old-fashioned punch recipe that I found tucked into an old family cookbook. There are no amounts given, but you might want to experiment with it. The original punch recipe suggested extending canned and sweetened fruit juice by the addition of the liquid strained from stewed rhubarb. Adjust the sweetness with sugar and serve over crushed ice. A modern version could be made by adding the rhubarb juice to strawberry Kool-Aid. Or, one might reduce it with water and sweeten it with sugar for a lemonade-like drink similar to the vinegar punch my grandfather used to like. When he wanted to be fancy, he added ginger to the brew and, at the last minute, stirred in a little baking soda to make it fizz. He called this concoction Yankee Twitchel and claimed it was restorative after a hot day of making hay – a 19th century sports drink, I suppose.
On second thought, I probably don’t need to grow my own rhubarb. Maybe I’ll just see if I can find some at the Farmers’ Market. One go-round with these old recipes will probably last me another 20 years, easy.