It was the sure sign of spring—those first green tufts of rhubarb pushing their way through a patch of the garden that may just a month earlier still have been covered with snow. After seeing the rhubarb, we knew the growing season would soon follow and the garden would once again be full of green and growing things. With their agrarian roots, my parents both tended the garden, but it was my mother who found a use for the rhubarb.
She showed my siblings and me how to tame its tartness by dipping the stalks into a cup of sugar. I imagine that her mother may have shown her this on the Iowa farm where she started her life. Picking the pinkest stalk available, I would dip one end into a cup of sugar so it was completely covered with the miniscule crystals of sweetness, the juice from the cut end of the stalk leaving just enough moisture for the sugar to stick to; I’d bite off the coated end and immediately taste a tart and sweet mixture of flavors that made my mouth pucker in delight.
Of course, rhubarb is the perfect conduit for sugar, as proven by one bite of my mom’s rhubarb pie, a particular favorite. My mother and I would pick a variety of stalks—the ruby red ones, the ones that were both pink and green, and then a few that were perhaps a little too green. But mixed with flour, sugar, and butter, the mixture would meld together into a tangy, sweet concoction that tasted perfect between the layers of a flaky pie crust.
Admittedly, rhubarb is not the most popular of vegetables. I believe the reason we may have had it was because it was a food that the earth could provide, and in my parents’ upbringing, no food went unused. Even a vegetable that needed a great deal of sugar to make it palatable. Now as I see rhubarb come back in my garden, spring after spring, I am reminded of that some things will always be.
But in truth, I let this harbinger of summer go to waste. I get excited about its growth, but don’t pick the stalks when I should, always thinking that I don’t have enough time for pie or muffins or even a simple rhubarb sauce. Soon their leaves start to turn yellow and their stalks shrivel, as if shaming me. I think of my parents and their disdain for waste. I look at the waning crop and admonish myself to be a better steward of this steadfast plant. Perhaps I should be gentler with myself, remembering that my mother baked pie when she was off from teaching school in the summer and had more time to show me all the steps to baking a pie—from mixing the filling, to rolling out the pie crust, and knowing when the filling was bubbling up just enough to tell us it was done.
After my mother had moved out of my childhood home with its massive garden, we went for one last look before the closing sale. Surveying the garden, which was overrun with weeds, I asked my mom, “Do you want anything from the garden?”
“Will you see if there is any rhubarb?” she asks. Sure. And there is, among the stinging nettle, wild daisies, and bindweed. Of course there is rhubarb. There always has been. I gingerly make my way through the weeds and begin breaking stalks off. “How much do you want?” I call up to my mom, who’s watching from the deck. “Oh, I don’t know, a few stalks,” she answers.
I pick a fistful of stalks, and not eager to stop, I get a few more, knowing that this rhubarb, the last that we will pick from this garden, will make an extraordinary pie.