I wish I could take rhubarb more seriously. I am guilty of being a bit dismissive towards it, at times - using the word as a sort of metaphor for something obscure or meaningless. I am not, thankfully, averse to eating it, but don’t use it in any interesting way. I poach it. I eat it.
I don’t know why I have this attitude to rhubarb. I blame finding out at an impressionable age that the word ‘rhubarb’, spoken over and over and over by large numbers of film extras is used to create a background anonymous hubbub of noise for a crowd scene.
Rhubarb was originally used for medicinal purposes, but by the early eighteenth century it was appearing in tarts. Tarts were its main culinary use, as far as I can gather, for a very long time. The problem, if it is indeed a problem, with rhubarb, is that for most uses it requires about triple its own weight in sugar to make it edible – and even then the tartness refuses to be hidden. A childhood treat was to be given a stick of rhubarb and a small paper fold of sugar to dip it in. I don’t ever remember any of us actually eating the raw rhubarb – the attraction was the sugar. Did our mothers think we actually ate it?
I wondered, does rhubarb have a secretly intriguing culinary history? I am not sure if it does, but the following recipe is a step in the right direction. It is for a soup – not a ‘fruit’ soup, but a ‘savoury’ soup. The inclusion of ‘two quarts of rich soup’ may seem to be tautological, but it almost certainly means ‘stock’ or ‘broth’. Almost identical versions of this recipe in other cookbooks of the time specify ‘gravy’ at this point – ‘gravy’ also meaning rich meat juice or broth in this instance.
There are various ways of dressing garden rhubarb, which serves as an excellent substitute for spring fruit. Peel and well wash four dozen sticks of rhubarb, blanch itin water three or four minutes, drain it on a sieve, and put it into a stewpan with two sliced onions, a carrot, an ounce of lean ham, and a good bit of butter. Let it stew gently over a slow fire till tender, then put in two quarts of rich soup, to which add two or three ounces of bread crumbs, and boil it about fifteen minutes. Skim off all the fat, season with salt and cayenne, pass it through a tamis, and serve it up with fried bread.
The Cook and Housekeepers Complete and Universal Dictionary, by Mary Eaton, 1822.
Quotation for the Day
I want a dish to taste good, rather than to have been seethed in pig's milk and served wrapped in a rhubarb leaf with grated thistle root.
Rhubarb does indeed have a fascinating history. As you point out medical, in syrups and the like. How it became food, I have no idea. Wouldn't that be a blast to write? Hey I think there's an idea here.
I have good memories of rhubarb...but not of enjoying eating it! My grandmother had a bunch out at her house and I'd always love to go pick it. I don't think I ever ate it but it was fun to hang out with her :)
Have a great day!
Hi Ken - so, have you found the topic for your next book?
Sarah - what a lovely non-food memory of rhubarb!
In baseball, an argument with the umpire is known as a "rhubarb. Baseball commentator Red Barber claimed to have based the usage on the practice in radio of actors repetitively voicing "rhubarb", which suggested to him the "muttering by an angry mob".
Hi Steve - interesting. I wonder who first suggested the word for crowd scenes?
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