Friday, February 14, 2020

All the Sauce that's fit to Print

While enjoying the first rhubarb crisp of the season I pondered an age old question. Is rhubarb a vegetable or a fruit? Because if it is either, then maybe this amazing concoction of sugar, butter, cinnamon, oatmeal and flour, along with, of course, some rhubarb, could be considered a healthy snack, rather than the breakfast of slackers.

The first definition of fruit I came across read thusly, “the sweet and fleshy product of a tree or other plant that contains seed and can be eaten as food.”

Hmm...I can see rhubarb failing pretty resoundingly in most of those attributes. It certainly isn’t sweet, having a pucker factor that is off the charts for sourness. It’s pretty fleshy, but doesn’t grow on trees. No seeds either. It can indeed be eaten, but so can tofu and that certainly isn’t fruit.

Then how about a vegetable. Veggies are even better for you, right?

The same source said, “a plant or part of a plant used as food, typically as accompaniment to meat or fish, such as a cabbage, potato, carrot, or bean.”

Nope, not a bean, although certainly part of a plant used as food. Not served in accompaniment to meat or fish either and much tastier than cabbage, when served with enough brown sugar to ward off the tang.

I decided to pursue this conundrum a bit farther.

According to Wikipedia, that sometimes flawed guru of the Internet, the plant is an herbaceous perennial with poisonous leaves. Okay, I knew the part about the leaves. As virtual toddlers at our grandpa’s knee my brothers, cousins, and I all learned that you don’t eat the leaves.

We also learned the culture of the plant, following grandpa around his tangled and magical garden, which was much given to wild things and sour things that could be mystically turned into culinary wonders by his partner in life (and grandchildren), my dear grandmother. He grew red currants, which are berries, so sour they would knot your eyebrows if you ate them without sugar.

However, what amazing jelly grandma made with them. I wish I had a patch today. Back when that garden was growing on what now is a barren city lawn, I learned to use currents to extend raspberries, which were always hard to come by, to make jelly as lovely as if only bramble fruit was involved.

Grandpa also grew pinksters, the wild azaleas of the mountains, which produced showers and fountains of pristine pink blossoms every single spring. I saw my first Ovenbird under one of them a fistful of decades ago and have never forgotten. Good thing, because they are gone from the lot along with the fruits and flowers.

Rhubarb is certainly perennial. You can spot the foundations of long gone farm houses by the lilac bushes still waving purple and white blooms above the fireweed and burdock. And by the seed heads of the rhubarb patch that provided desserts for farm folks whose names might be carved in stones in some long forgotten cemetery nearby. The people are gone and maybe forgotten. The buildings have long since fallen into their foundations or been consumed by flames or cannibalized for lumber.

However, the herbaceous perennial still thrives.

I soon discovered that the Chinese were thought to have used the plant medicinally for centuries. Certainly without the addition of some sort of sweetener it rivals the bitterest of remedies. The plant was mentioned in an herbal remedy treatise that was written 2700 years ago, and is said to have come to Europe via the Silk Road, where it arrived during the 14th century.

According to the Rhubarb Compendium, “Marco Polo, who knew all about the Chinese rhubarb rhizome, talked about it at length in the accounts of his travels in China. So much of interest on the past of Marco Polo is accounted for by the fact that in those days Venice was an extremely important trading center, and that as a result of eastern Arabic influence, Chinese rhubarb was already widely used in European pharmacy, especially in the school of Salerno.”

The plant is said to have first been cultivated on this continent in Maine around 1790 from whence it soon spread to Massachusetts and beyond, eventually arriving in my grandpa’s garden in Johnstown, NY sometime during the last century. However, another account claims that the plant arrived via seeds sent to a man in Philadelphia during the 1730s.

I was astonished to learn that there is a Rhubarb Triangle in England. My thoughts first sprang to mysteriously vanishing desserts. Certainly the huge dish of rhubarb crisp I concocted for a visit from our boy and his girlfriend disappeared in a most confounding fashion. However, the one in England is a 9-square mile area where the plant is grown in the dark in greenhouses, supposedly rendering a sweeter and tenderer product. The stalks are plucked by candlelight to keep the plants as dark as possible.

I kinda like the stuff we grow in the flowerbed right out there in the sun and all but to each their own.

Either way rhubarb is tasty when prepared properly, but none of this answers my question about my unconventional breakfast.

Imagine my dismay when I discovered that the part of the rhubarb plants that we turn into desserts and sauces and wonderful pies is in fact a leaf petiole.

A stem.

Nowhere have I seen stems mentioned as health food, although a good timothy stem to chew while walking out to the hay field is probably a fine aid to rumination of the mental variety.

I guess I will have to admit that rhubarb crisp for breakfast is at least as decadent as potato chips and milk, which are known around here as the breakfast of champions.

But, wait. There’s oatmeal in it. What could possibly be healthier than that? And butter is a fine, upstanding, dairy fat, said to contribute to a healthy body weight and all.

Whew, I was worried for a minute there.

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