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.

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Welcome to WordSisters!

We are Elizabeth and Ellen—sisters in writing—in it together from inspiration to publication. We’ve been part of the same Twin Cities writers’ group for close to 10 years and admire each other’s work. We love to write, and we both have memoir manuscripts that we want to publish. Although our lives have taken different paths, we share similar values.

Elizabeth

Elizabeth recently experienced the Mudder—10+ miles of mud, freezing cold water, climbing walls, and electric shocks. She was team captain until being fired for bringing two left running shoes to the race. She ended up running the hilly muddy obstacle course in her Sketchers. The Mudder is a team race, which is not Elizabeth’s forte. She is mostly known for getting in fights with the “real” captain on a team. “I just kind of always disagree with the leader,” Elizabeth explains. She is not known for following rules either. Her team “We Be Slow,” would have started before their assigned start time but fortunately, a team member’s father hadn’t arrived, so the team had to abide by the rules.

Elizabeth continues to evolve. She started the race with four teammates and ended the race with the same people . . . though it took her the first two miles to understand there is no “I” in team. Her spiritual growth was assisted by the real possibility that the 67-year-old member of the team might go into cardiac arrest. Plus, another team member threatened bodily harm if Elizabeth didn’t stick with the group. Most days, she can be found working as a Human Resource Manager for a foundry in Minneapolis. Always liking the heat, the unknown, the adventurous, she hopes she’ll grab your attention and keep it.

Ellen

Ellen is decidedly NOT adventurous and certainly not athletic. The only reason she’d ever be running is if someone were chasing her. And even then, she’d probably try to talk the thug into giving up the chase and getting something good to eat instead. Cooking and eating good food are a big focus in her life. That’s why both her 20-something sons are into food (they’re downstairs making Cuban pork right now, while her husband John is making strawberry shortcake from scratch).

Her version of “mudder” involves dirt. And flowers. Lots of them. She haunts the St. Paul Farmers’ market and garden stores this time of year, dreaming of wonderful color combinations—the red marguerite daisy. No, the yellow one. No, the orange zinnias. She’ll calm down by August. But until then, a knockout garden still seems possible.

The rest of the time, she writes marketing communications for a small children’s hospital and does the occasional freelance copywriting project. After having her own copywriting business for 18 years, she still likes working with a handful of fun clients.

WordSisters will appear weekly and focus on topics such as work and motherhood. Ellen’s blogs may also include observations about politics, women’s rights, and middle age. Elizabeth’s may include her outlook on spirituality, adoption, Tae Kwon Do sparring, Guatemala, being part of a two-Mom partnership, and being in a relationship with that same woman. Occasionally, other members of our six-person writers’ group may also contribute.  Ellen & Elizabeth