This is the time for that lovely harbinger of spring. Almost as soon as the snow goes we start looking for those familiar crinkly, curly leaves and someone reports, “Rhubarb’s up!” It is almost like a tonic and it does have medicinal properties. Only the stalks are eaten as the leaves are poisonous, containing oxalic acid. If cows break into your garden in the summer they will not eat the leaves, much preferring your best cabbages or chomping down a row of beet greens.
I have read books where “pie plant” was mentioned not knowing that was what some early settlers called rhubarb. It was often the first fresh food available after a winter of eating food stored in root cellars and nearly every yard had a patch of this virtually indestructible plant. My parents were no exception and we as children picked large stalks and ran around with them, shielded from the rain or sun. We shuddered at the sour tartness of the ruby stalks but also liked to dip them in a bit of sugar. When the stalks were tiny, before the flavour was fully developed, we ate them like celery.
When we moved to my grandfather’s farm in the early 1940’s the rhubarb was well established. Although it does require much sugar to make it palatable, most people seemed to regard rhubarb almost as a staple food. This was wartime and sugar was one of the commodities that was rationed and ration books with little coupons were issued to each person. Butter was also rationed but as we made our own butter Mom sometimes traded butter coupons for sugar. We still had to be careful. We were allowed just so much brown sugar to put on our porridge but my brother Eric saved his in a jar until he had enough to make some fudge. He did not often share it.
My mother and her sister Grace often worked together in the summer to preserve things like beet pickles or berries. I especially remember rhubarb day when my aunt would arrive with her children and her two quart jars. I do not know where my mother learned her method of preserving rhubarb without sugar or processing but the early settlers had many ways of doing things that are not recommended now.
After the rhubarb was cleaned and cut into small pieces it was packed in two quart jars and then tamped down, often with a small clean stick of wood. Soon the juices would start to flow. The jar had to be right full until the juices ran over the top of the jar. Then the rubber ring and glass top was positioned and the metal top screwed down tightly. The finished product never looked too appetizing to me with its odd greenish brown colour but the ladies were satisfied.
In the winter Mom would open a jar of rhubarb, smell it and then proceed to make a pie or some other dessert with plenty of sugar! I have wondered about this as I may have missed a step in the process and recently looked in an old reference book where I found this method was recommended as way to can rhubarb. As far as I know neither family ever got sick from eating rhubarb preserved this way.
I think we all preferred it in the early spring when made into what we called “Rhubarb Betty” with the pieces sweetened with white sugar and baked with a lovely topping made of brown sugar and oatmeal. Or later in the spring when stewed with wild strawberries! No matter how it was prepared it always needed sugar to control that unmistakable tang.
In later years I have memories of people making wine from rhubarb but prefer to forget that as it involved vast amounts of sugar and usually ended up being thrown out. As usual this year I look forward to the first rhubarb.