Monday, January 23, 2006

Misunderstood, misused and misliked?

Today, January 23rd …

On this day in 1889, an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, wrote a letter of complaint to the Steward:

“I wish to mention that I have twice been sent Rhubarb tart when I have ordered apple, as I have a particular objection to Rhubarb tart I hope it may not occur again. I also wish to mention that the food in Hall is not what it should be.”

Poor rhubarb! If ever there was a food that should suffer low self esteem and an identity crisis, it is rhubarb. It is a plant that has been misunderstood and misused all of its life. For starters, it is a vegetable that we have used as a fruit since we stopped using it as a medicine - and a purgative medicine at that.

Its very name means “food of the barbarians” (the people who live beyond the Rha, now the river Volga), and to add insult to insult, the name has since been hijacked by the theatre industry as a background nonsense word. Its riches to rags life history hasn’t helped either: once a desirable medicine worth more than opium and saffron it is now easily grown in anyone’s back yard. The dried root was used medicinally, and now we cook the fleshy stems, but early consumers mistakenly ate the leaves which was unfortunate as they contain oxalic acid which is poisonous. Although it would take 5 kg of leaves to kill, the confusion did nothing for rhubarb’s reputation.

It must have been a brave cook who first offered rhubarb in a pie, even allowing for new hybrids and cheaper sugar, considering its medicinal use as a purgative. Instead of pie, I offer you this rhubarb dessert, while sincerely hoping that our poor veggiefruit does not take further offense at the name.

Rhubarb Fool.
Wash, and if necessary, peel the rhubarb, and cut it up into small pieces. Put as much as is to be used into a jar which has a close-fitting lid, with as much sugar as will sweeten it. Set this jar in a saucepan of boiling water, and keep it boiling until the fruit is quite soft. Rub it through a sieve with the back of a wooden spoon, and mix with the pulp as much cream, milk, or thin cold custard as will make it of the consistency of gruel. Serve cold in a glass dish (1870).

Tomorrow: A revolutionary dish.


Sixty Bricks said...

I grew up in Wisconsin and I ate rhubarb straight from the ground many times. My mom made a wonderful rhubarb sauce that goes over ice cream (warm sauce) and it is delicious. Rhubarb pie is also one of my favorites. I guess this makes me a barbarian.

The Old Foodie said...

I think I must be a barbarian too. I grew up in Yorkshire England, and sometimes we would have a stick of rhubarb and a little bag with sugar in it to dip and chew. I love it in rhubarb PIE! (that is a 2 crust pie, not a tart, of course, with proper custard, of course). I love the idea of rhubarb sauce. Would your mother part with the recipe?

Anonymous said...

I made rhubarb fool last night from Simon Hopkinson's book and loved it. After eating my wife wondered what was the etymology of the term "fool", in relation to the dessert. Any ideas?

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Paul. It comes, I believe, from the idea of something light and trivial.