Checking back through my history books, I see that rhubarb has had an inglorious and clouded past. Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled Magellan’s circumnavigation, mistook a Siamese tree prized for its aroma while rotting for what we now call rhubarb. He at least had the continent right, as it seems to have originated somewhere in Asia, though it could have been anywhere between the Ural Mountains and the Yangtze River.
We know where the current name came from, though. The Romans called it Rhabarbarum, or “Rha of the Barbarians.” “Rha” is the Roman name for what we now know as the Volga, and the “Barbarians” they referred 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 medicinal herb, and was grown in monastery gardens as recently as 1724 “tostock abbey pharmacies with its medicinal roots,” food historian Waverly Root tells us. Using it as a food came later, in England, andthey did not at first focus on the puckeringly sour stalks. They actually ate the leaves as some would spinach, and Mr. Root supposes that perhaps it was actually enjoyed amongst some of the survivors, since the leaves contain oxalic acid and has, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Food Plants, “sometimes caused death.”
Today, we stick to the stalks.
The most common place to find rhubarb in use these days is in the ubiquitous strawberry-rhubarb pie. This is due, no doubt, to the heavenly manner in which they complement each other. But it is also due to the fact that they both come from our gardens at the same time, in June.
Strawberries have been known and prized all over the world for centuries but were rare treats until relatively recently, since they only grew wild, and though abundant in some places, they were extremely perishable.Today, they are easily cultivated, but it is only the perishable heirloom varieties 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 hybridized out of all resemblance to its ancestors in an effort to increase its shelf life and shipability. Flavor and nutritional value have not been concerns 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-third of dry mixture. Gently add Rhubarb and Strawberries and heap onto pies hell. Create a slight mound in center. Sprinkle remaining dry mixture over 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.