The Makings of an Extraordinary Pie

Photo by Miika Silfverberg - originally posted to Flickr as Young rhubarb

Photo by Miika Silfverberg – originally posted to Flickr as Young rhubarb

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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 10.53.59 AMOf 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.

Pondering Easter Traditions

Growing up, Mom was the creator and keeper of Easter holiday traditions. She helped us color eggs, and after we were asleep, she hid the Easter baskets. Each one had a name in it so the four of us wouldn’t fight. She made sure we each had the same amount of candy and eggs. She bought my sister and me Easter hats, dresses, shiny patent leather shoes, gloves, and spring coats. My brothers had dress shirts, pants and ties. It was always too cold for the summery clothes we wore to church. But every year she lined up the four of us next to the tulip garden for a photo. Year after year, she made ham, au gratin potatoes, fruit salad, and Mimmie, my grandmother, brought coffeecake. It was work, but all I saw was the joy Mom took in those traditions.

My husband, sons and I don’t live close enough to be a part of my parents’ celebration and our own observances are hit or miss. When my sons were young, my husband and I traveled to his parents, and I bought the Easter clothes and candy and sent the greeting cards. We all went to church despite my ambivalence about Catholicism.

Over the years, the old ways had begun to seem hollow instead of joyful. I told myself that it was better to lighten up and let go. We would invent new traditions and keep the day simple.

In the last ten years since my father-in-law died, we have stayed home. Now that Mom is gone, I feel even more unmoored from Easter customs. I have quit pretending to be an observant Catholic. Easter is a low-key affair. No church. No dress-up clothes. My sons and husband are relieved. None of the four of us likes ham, so we make a big Easter breakfast instead. Mimmie’s coffeecake is the one thing we always have.

FullSizeRenderWe have gone our own way and simplified our celebration, but sometimes I wonder if I’ve let too many of the old ways slip away.

Keeping up those rituals tied us to generations of family who did the same things—put on new clothes to symbolize renewal, ate special rich food after a period of fasting, and came together as family because that’s how you strengthen bonds.

What remains in our minimalist Easter ritual is that my family of four spends the day together, eating good food, talking and laughing. There is little history or religion in our day, but I believe our celebration has what’s essential: it strengthens our ties with each other.