Cooking with rhubarb

Local History by Ron Patch. Ron Patch is a Chester native, Chester Historical Society president, and a lifelong antiques dealer. He can be reached at 802-374-0119 or email knotz69@gmail.com.

Like lilacs, many older homes have a clump or two of rhubarb. Last week, I visited my friend and classmate Kim Kendall. We sat in his barn several feet apart discussing life. No politics.

We got to talking about rhubarb when Kim told me to look at his rhubarb patch off his rear deck. The photo with this article is Kim’s rhubarb patch.

Kim’s grandparents, Frank and Emma Kendall, were farmers up in Baltimore. When they gave up farming, they moved to North Springfield. They lived just a few doors beyond Morse’s Market. Here they had a rhubarb patch.

It was about 55 years ago when Kim’s father Nelson went to his parents’ place in North Springfield and dug up some of their rhubarb. He planted the rhubarb behind his barn where it is to this day.

Kim learned gardening from his father. Kim is an interesting man. He’s a firm believer in nature and the organic world. It’s how he was raised.

Kim's 55-year-old rhubarb patch.
Kim’s 55-year-old rhubarb patch. Photo by Ron Patch

We sat talking about rhubarb, how to grow it, and how to harvest it. Kim was telling me you don’t cut rhubarb but pull it. I found this interesting. Kim says if you cut the stalks, it will allow disease or insects to infect the rhubarb and kill it.

This was new to me so I checked Wikipedia and found this: “The rhubarb curculio, Lixus concavus, is a weevil. Rhubarb is a host, damage being visible mainly on the leaves and stalks, with gummosis, and oval or circular feeding and/or egg-laying sites.”

I went down to Kim’s patch to try pulling some. I slid my hand down the stalk near the base and pulled. Sure enough it worked perfectly. By pulling the rhubarb, it breaks off beneath the soil where the weevil can’t get at it.

Kim’s father laid out the rhubarb patch in exacting rows. This past March, Kim had his apple trees pruned resulting in a substantial pile of brush. While burning brush will get rid of it, Kim wanted it chipped. He believes chipped is better for the soil. Kim had the chips spread over his rhubarb patch. It’s a neat and tidy rhubarb patch.

Everything Kim does on his property is done this way. Today, we call it organic gardening. It’s something we Vermonters have done from the beginning. We just didn’t have a name for it.

Kim told me he used to sell rhubarb. He never got more than a dollar per pound. Some down-country restaurants used to buy 50 to 100 pounds at a clip. Today, Kim has a few people who still come and get his rhubarb. Some make rhubarb wine.

I’ve had rhubarb wine. When made by a competent winemaker, it is a very pleasant wine. This reminds me of the time Don Farrar gave me a bottle of his strawberry wine. I’d take a case of that.

Kim and I talked about different ways to cook rhubarb. My favorite is strawberry rhubarb pie. The best way to serve strawberry rhubarb pie is warm with a healthy scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.

I had pulled two stalks, but what was I to do with them? Kim told me to cut them up in short pieces. I steamed them about 10 minutes. It cooks down quickly. Then you stir and add sugar. I was about to add sugar when I remembered I had some maple syrup. Last week, Lynn Russell stopped by my place to give me a pint of maple syrup she and John made this year.

I added a little maple syrup, testing it for sweetness a couple times. Rhubarb is very tart so sweetening it is necessary. It was pretty darn good. I might try honey next.

Kim believes everything should be returned to the soil. He doesn’t use chemicals or insecticides. Anything that can be composted is. As we sat talking, I noticed several five-gallon buckets of compost. Kim adds this compost to his plants.

Peter Farrar likes rhubarb raisin pie and rhubarb upside down cake. You can freeze rhubarb raw for future use. Don’t eat the leaves. They are poisonous.

Well, the state is gradually reopening. I’m back to buying antiques. If you have antiques to sell, I’m sure we can figure a safe way to meet. Give me a call.

  This week’s old saying is from my old friend Fitzie. It would apply to those today who think organic gardening is something they just invented. “They’re re-plowing old ground.”

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