It was not yet Memorial Day and already the rhubarb was in its full glory – the stalks as thick as broom handles, leaves bigger than place mats, and the fat fists of the flower stalks reaching skyward out of each great green mound. This native of Siberia is incredibly hardy; you cannot kill it with cold or drought or even fire. Homes have burned to the ground, and the rhubarb, like its fellow immigrant, the lilac will live on.
Rhubarb is the first fruit of spring. Its tartness earned it the reclassification (made official by a New York court in 1947 in the matter related to assigning tariffs). You reach down, grasp each stalk by the base, and pull outward until it tears neatly from the fleshy root. No knife is needed. But only the hardiest can eat rhubarb straight and raw. The culprit is the acidity, a blend of malic and oxalic acids. (The latter acid is much higher still in the leaves which makes them potentially toxic if you managed to eat enough of them). My neighbor Lou, a horse logger, eats his rhubarb raw, like someone chewing a stick of celery, but most people slice the stalks and bake them into rhubarb pie.
“Pie plant” is what many call this member of the buckwheat clan, and the pie that comes to the table most frequently has been amended with the addition of strawberries. People do love strawberry rhubarb pie. And this is where the matter gets curiouser and curiouser. To be a home gardener is to be reconnected with the seasons. A pie made with strawberries and rhubarb is delicious. I have been served many, but rhubarb is ready to pick now and the strawberries have just begun to flower. Their fruit won’t be ready to pick for a month, so the question is who invented the strawberry rhubarb pie, and why?
As eating seasonally began its renaissance and I began asking this very question to audiences as I spoke about the merits of growing at least some of one’s own food, I got a number of explanations. Most claimed that the sliced strawberries added sweetness, though they admitted that additional sugar was always necessary, and most admitted that they used either frozen strawberries or frozen rhubarb when it came time to make a pie. Only a few claimed to have both ingredients fresh at the same time.
The availability of sugar is what made eating rhubarb popular. The dried roots were a source of traditional medicines for many centuries before anyone sat down to a slice of pie. Sugar, lots of it, is what makes rhubarb delicious. If a slice of rhubarb pie gets rid of the taste of humiliation, as Garrison Keillor announces on Prairie Home Companion, it’s the sugar balancing the acidity that does it.
But when did strawberries enter the picture? I am speaking at a spring flower show in Bangor, Maine one cold winter day. A blizzard is blanketing the parking lot outside, but the room I am speaking in still smells faintly of the elephants that are housed there when the circus is in town. The audience is attentive, undeterred by the weather and dressed for it. We discuss the conundrum of a pie whose two ingredients are almost but not quite in synchrony. Once again people admit it is a problem, one they solve by going to the freezer.
It is not until I am back out in the hall when the answer appears. She is a woman who has weathered many a winter, her accent is not just Maine but Northern Maine, perhaps Caribou. “What don’t you understand about strawberry rhubarb pie?” she wants to know. “How to make it,” I reply. “You make it out of strawberry rhubarb,” she says. When I look befuddled, she goes on, “Use the red rhubarb, it’s so much prettier than the green stuff.”
This is my “Eureka!” moment, the solution that has eluded me lo these many discussions. Some varieties of rhubarb have bright red stalks, others partially red, and still others are all green. It is not a matter of how the plants are grown; the color is in the genetics. With your eyes closed you won’t know what color of rhubarb you are eating, but the red is prettier to many eyes. ‘Macdonald’ and ‘Valentine’ are varieties with deep red stalks. ‘Victoria’ stalks are green on the top red on the bottom, and ‘Riverside Giant’ is all green but the stalks are both longer and thicker than some of all red varieties. There is even, of course, a variety named ‘Strawberry’ whose stalks are pink both on the interior and exterior.
Whether ‘Strawberry’ rhubarb was the plant used to make the first strawberry rhubarb pie or not, it is clear to me now that the name refers to color not fruit. Like strawberry blondes, no actual strawberries need apply. The convenience of frozen ingredients, like the arrival of the inexpensive sugar that made rhubarb a food in the first place, is what turned strawberry-rhubarb pie into an actual combination. My advice: Make rhubarb pies in rhubarb season, and wait until strawberry season to make your strawberry pies. To grow well is to eat well. In every season.
Roger B. Swain