BY KURT MICHAEL FRIESE
Checking back through my history books, I see that rhubarb hashad an inglorious and clouded past. Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled Magellan’scircumnavigation, mistook a Siamese tree prized for its aroma while rotttingfor what we now call rhubarb. He at least had the continent right, as it seemsto have originated somewhere in Asia, though it could have been anywhere betweenthe Ural Mountains and the Yangtze River.
We know where the current name came from, though. The Romans calledit Rhabarbarum, or “Rha of the Barbarians.” “Rha” isthe Roman name for what we now know as the Volga, and the “Barbarians” theyreferred to were the Tartars. Rhubarb grew (and still grows) alongthe banks of the Volga.
For most of its history, rhubarb had been considered only a medicinalherb, and was grown in monastery gardens as recently as 1724 “tostock abbey pharmacies with its medicinal roots,” food historianWaverly Root tells us. Using it as a food came later, in England, andthey did not at first focus on the puckeringly sour stalks. They actuallyate the leaves as some would spinach, and Mr. Root supposes that perhapsit was actually enjoyed amongst some of the survivors, since the leavescontain oxalic acid and has, according to The Oxford Dictionary ofFood Plants, “sometimes caused death.”
Today, we stick to the stalks.
The most common place to find rhubarb in use these days is in theubiquitous strawberry-rhubarb pie. This is due, no doubt, to the heavenlymanner in which they complement each other. But it is also due to thefact that they both come from our gardens at the same time, in June.
Strawberries have been known and prized all over the world for centuriesbut were rare treats until relatively recently, since they only grewwild, and though abundant in some places, they were extremely perishable.Today, they are easily cultivated, but it is only the perishable heirloomvarieties that bear any resemblance to the real thing on the palate,and they must be harvested and consumed immediately.
The typical grocery store strawberry has been cultivated and hybridizedout of all resemblance to its ancestors in an effort to increase itsshelf life and shipability. Flavor and nutritional value have not beenconcerns among those who propagate these golf-ball-sized wonders.
Here is a very simple pie recipe for use with your favorite crust:
1-1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups fresh rhubarb, peeled & chopped
3 cups fresh strawberries, halved
1 double pie crust (bottom & top )
Sift together all dry ingredients. Sprinkle bottom of crust with one-thirdof dry mixture. Gently add Rhubarb and Strawberries and heap onto pieshell. Create a slight mound in center. Sprinkle remaining dry mixtureover fruit. Dot with butter; cover with top crust.
Bake at 425° F. for 10 minutes; reduce to 350° F. and bake40 to 50 minutes. Cool before cutting.
For more recipes and articles on food, see the FoodIndex.
Chef Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurantDevotay. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.