Dining

Family Heirlooms

For one writer, rhubarb's spring growth signals more than summer pies.

June 2010

During a late-April snowstorm, I found myself in the unlikeliest of places: my garden. As the storm raged, I frantically scooped snow away from my perennial rhubarb plants. Weeks earlier, warm weather had enticed alienlike sprouts to push through the earth, and now the four-inch-long stalks were drooping under the weight of the heavy spring snow. I carefully placed a five-gallon bucket over each plant to trap heat. Inside, I held vigil at my kitchen window for two days. As soon as the snow stopped, I pulled off the buckets to uncover three unperturbed, perfect little rhubarb plants: my legacy.

While some families pass down antique heirlooms, children in my family inherit, of all things, rhubarb plants. But these plants are not the standard garden-nursery variety; the rhubarb—two tart, light-green varieties and one with sweeter, ruby-red stalks—is my birthright. More than 30 years ago a neighbor gave three plants (which were more than 50 years old) to my mom, and when most kids were learning to bake chocolate chip cookies, I mastered my great-grandmother's rhubarb crisp. As soon as I became a homeowner, my mother showed up at my doorstep with the same three gnarled roots.

But her gift came with a caveat: I would become the rhubarb's keeper so I could give cuttings to my siblings when they had gardens of their own. For a newbie gardener, it was a lot of pressure. I fretted, fussed, and just generally obsessed over these plants. During the first year I let the roots establish, and soon elephant ear-size leaves were growing atop two-foot stalks. I tore off the seedpods as soon as they appeared to help the plant continue producing until late summer. I cursed the garden slugs that buried into the squishy flesh and the bindweed that curled up the stalks. But the plants survived—even thrived.

By the second season, the roots were established and it was time to harvest the stalks. Now, there's some contention in my family about rhubarb harvesting; my grandfather pulls each stalk from the ground, but my mother prefers to cut the stalks at the soil level before slicing off the semi-poisonous leaves. I opt for my mom's method, bending over the plants—it's one of those intimate, sensory gardening moments when you can actually smell the soil and see new growth—to select firm, bright stalks.

Like zucchini, rhubarb's bounty is infamous. A healthy, established plant may produce more than 30 stalks, but you only need six or seven to make a pie. As a result, I've turned rhubarb into everything from pies to jams, jellies to breads—even wine. The leftovers are cut into one-inch pieces and frozen so that, come fall, rhubarb takes over my freezer. But by spring, just when new growth is bursting through the soil, I've depleted my stash. That's when I head out to my garden again to coax and coddle my heirlooms. After all, these plants practically grew up with me—and caring for them is part of my DNA.

Rhubarb Crunch

  • 1 cup flour
  • ¾ cup instant oatmeal
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ginger
  • 2 cups rhubarb, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°. Mix flour, oatmeal, brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, and ginger in a small bowl until crumbly. Grease four ramekins. Divide half of the oatmeal mixture among the ramekins and lightly press to form bottom crust. Cover each ramekin with a quarter of the cut rhubarb. Meanwhile, combine and bring to boil the sugar, cornstarch, water, and vanilla. Stir frequently until sauce thickens (about 15 minutes). Pour sauce over rhubarb and top with remaining oatmeal crumble. Bake for one hour. Tip: Place the ramekins on a cookie sheet to catch drips.