Raised on Rhubarb: Life Lessons from My Grandma’s Favorite Vegetable
I’m lucky. I was raised on rhubarb.
Rhubarb is a humble vegetable in the celery family. Its wide leaves and pink root are poisonous, but its sour stalk can be eaten raw (though I don’t recommend it—unless you’ve got a jar of sugar to dip it into first). This veggie is almost always found sweetened and baked inside some tasty homemade dessert. Occasionally, a restaurant chef will deem it menu-worthy, but this is pretty rare. Rhubarb is a food of grandmothers’ kitchens.
My grandma’s kitchen was in rural Iowa in a town of 700 people. The rhubarb she baked came from a truck-sized patch grown in my family’s backyard.
When you’re raised on rhubarb, you understand a lot about food. First, you learn about seasons. Rhubarb is such an underutilized vegetable that you won’t find it in most grocery stores. You eat it fresh from the ground, and it only grows from spring to early summer.
As a little kid, it’s your job to pick the rhubarb. You’re taught and trusted to understand which parts to eat and which to cut off and leave behind as compost in the patch. You’re handed a sharp knife and sent about your task.
Once harvested, the ripe rhubarb stalks come inside to the kitchen, where Grandma and Mom eagerly await this seasonal treat. The stems are soaked in a sink full of clean water, then diced into inch-long pieces. From this, you can make any number of favorites: rhubarb sauce for ice cream, rhubarb muffins, rhubarb cake or our favorite: rhubarb pinwheels, a dumpling dough rolled and wrapped around a filling of rhubarb, sugar and cinnamon, then topped with a sticky rhubarb sauce.
When you’re raised on rhubarb, you spend time as a kid in the kitchen or in the garden with your family. This is the one activity that can draw you away from the new book you’re itching to read, or the cat you’re hoping to pet—passions your grandma also shares.
Time spent in the kitchen is for learning. There are new words to understand, and special codes. A capital “T” means “tablespoon.” A lowercase “t” means “teaspoon.” Folding batter is different from regular stirring. A “cup” isn’t something you drink water from, but a device to measure flour or heaping mounds of chopped rhubarb.
When you’re raised on rhubarb, you lead a simple life. Fancy jewelry, airplanes and smart phones don’t seem to matter. What’s important is having a warm baked dessert to pull from the oven just as guests arrive. Those guests could be your family visiting, the neighbor popping by or the insurance agent making a house call to update your paperwork. They’re all treated equally with a slice of cake or a warm bowl of pudding.
For 38 years, the passing of the seasons have been marked for me by the coming and going of rhubarb. The significance of this vegetable is rich with fond memories of grandma, my parents and my rural upbringing.
When you’re raised on rhubarb, food is meant to be simple, tasty and made with your own hands. My grandma lived through the Great Depression, and she knew how to stretch a dollar. That meant growing your own food, letting nothing go to waste by canning and preserving, and making do with meals where potatoes were the main star and meat found only in the gravy. Grandma showed people she loved them by cooking for them. That’s also how she expressed gratitude, sympathy and respect.
Every birthday was celebrated with a three-dimensional masterpiece. My favorite was a cake topped with fluffy white sevenminute frosting that hardened into a winter wonderland, complete with ice skating figurines dressed in fluffy red jackets. Gifts were always practical: empty Tupperware for storing homemade doll clothes, craft kits for painting, and pens and journals for pursuing your childhood dream of one day becoming a writer.
When you’re raised on rhubarb, your grandma comes to stay with you when your parents are away on business. Instead of cereal and milk, your breakfast on those days is warm Cream of Wheat. You wake up and Grandma is already in the kitchen, the table set with bowls and spoons, a pot of water boiling on the stovetop.
Mealtime was always central to any planning or activity, and meals were eaten at the table, together as a family.
When I was 16, I was an exchange student in Denmark. I wanted to share the American tradition of Thanksgiving with my host family. This would be my first time cooking Thanksgiving dinner alone, without the aid of my mom and grandma.
Weeks before the big day, packages started arriving from home: handwritten recipe cards in Grandma’s tiny cursive script, cans of pumpkin purée and cranberries, items not to be found on the Danish grocery store shelves. While I was living so very far away, my grandma was worried about how well I was eating.
When you’re raised on rhubarb, your grandma is always just one phone call away. On my second Thanksgiving without my grandma, I was living in California. I had moved here with my boyfriend (now husband), and we wanted our first Thanksgiving together to include all the fixings. Now 24, I hadn’t made my own turkey since that Danish Thanksgiving nearly a decade earlier.
Instead of calling the Butterball hotline, I dialed my grandma. She walked me through the turkey. Then an hour later she walked me through the pie, and 20 minutes later, the creamed corn. The phone was being passed back and forth between my mom and my grandma, depending on whose specialty dish I was making at the time. They of course, were having Thanksgiving together.
When you’re raised on rhubarb, you get handwritten note cards in the mail for every holiday, big or small: your birthday, Valentine’s Day, Halloween. Grandma always remembered to carefully select a card with a picture of a cat, and it always expressed a statement about what a special granddaughter I was. Tucked inside were clippings from magazines containing recipes, stories relevant to my hobbies and interests and a handwritten letter with the latest news from Grandma’s kitchen.
The last time I saw my grandma, we made rhubarb pinwheels together. She was 91. She clucked over me, assessing the way I stirred the batter, correcting the length of the dough as I rolled, and guiding me in a recipe she’d been making for over six decades. I noted how short her breathing became as she rolled the dough. She had to sit in her chair rather than standing while she cooked. Yet, that didn’t stop her at all. She had her granddaughter home, the oven was warming and our favorite vegetable was being turned into a delightful dessert.
As the pinwheels baked, Grandma and I shared stories about our favorite recipes. She handed me several magazine clippings she had set aside for my visit. We laughed about cooking mishaps. We sneaked spoons full of warm pinwheels straight from the pan before Mom arrived—our little secret. And then, we ate warm rhubarb dessert for lunch, topped with vanilla ice cream.
When you’re raised on rhubarb, Grandma lets you eat dessert first sometimes!
It’s been a year since Grandma and I made pinwheels together. Two weeks ago, she passed away peacefully, surrounded by our family. When I came back to California from her funeral, I noticed the rhubarb in my garden had just sprouted. The tiniest, crinkled green leaf is pushing its way above the soil toward the sun.
When you’re raised on rhubarb, you learn to keep the tradition alive. You plant your own happy rhubarb patch to share with your family and your friends. And every time to you cook it, you think of your Grandma Betty.