Of all the things my mother loved, high on her list was (of all things!) rhubarb. She grew the stuff herself (of course), and the huge plants seemed to inhabit their own spacious solar system in the garden near the windmill. In my early memories of them, the long pinkish-red stalks with dark-green, flouncing elephant ear-sized leaves seemed to dwarf me.
The arrival of rhubarb — along with the domestic asparagus spears she also cultivated — seemed to be one of the first things to herald spring. My mom had a salivary obsession with rhubarb, her mouth watering even as she anticipated it. She cooked large pots of the chopped stalks — with just a little water, ample sugar to temper the shrill tartness and maybe a pinch of cinnamon — down to a sumptuous pink pulp that she gleefully ate, slurping, by the bowlful. She called it “spring tonic,” as her mother did. There were nights where, alone at the kitchen table (save for a dog snoozing on her foot), she made a bedtime snack of the last of the tart tonic in the pot, hunched over it in focused rhubarb rapture.
Sometimes there was such a bounty, she sacrificed some of the stewed rhubarb to plastic bags that went into the deep freezer to be unearthed some fall or winter day as a spring remembrance — or hope. Other times, she turned the rhubarb into jars of jam or maybe made a “pure-D” rhubarb pie (it is, after all, known as the “pie plant”). She wasn’t one to combine it with strawberries (as is popular) — in anything. It was rhubarb’s unique, singular taste that she craved.
As a child, I was not as much of a fan of my mother’s rhubarb “tonic,” as she was. Something about it was a little too “goopy” and sour for the tastes of a finicky youngster. But I gradually grew into an appreciation of this edible symbol of spring.
After reading a recipe for rhubarb compote from gardening and cookery writer Ruth Isabel Ross in her delightful book — a winner for armchair traveling, gardening and cooking, “A Year in an Irish Garden” (A & A Farmar: 1999), something sensory was triggered, a spring fever urging me to seek out rhubarb and coax some sort of comforting pink elixir from it.
A local grocery sold some in banded pairs of weighty, healthy-looking stalks. Cutting it into more manageable pieces, I was reminded of the unlikeliness of this woody, stringy creature (botanically a vegetable, but ruled a “fruit” by U.S. Customs Court in Buffalo, NY, in 1947) becoming a soft, sweet delicacy, the base of so many desserts. Who first discovered this? Wild rhubarbs are native to Asia, according to “The Oxford Companion to Food,” edited by Alan Davidson (Oxford University Press: 1999), and it was the plants’ roots that were first recorded to be used.
Rhubarb has long been cultivated and highly popular in Great Britain, where it even shows up as the fruity layer in the bottom of containers of yogurt (I was lucky enough to have some when I visited Ireland). Reading a little more about rhubarb, I learned the tonic side of it (used medicinally as early as 200 B.C.) — aside from having antioxidants and a high fiber content, it is also full of Vitamin K1, helpful for blood clotting and bone health.
While I wanted to continue the tradition of my mom’s status as a rhubarb purist, using no other fruit enhancement for my compote, I could not resist Ross’ suggestion that stewed rhubarb is “always improved by orange juice.” But, as a nod to my mother, I added just a whiff of cinnamon, too.
Cooking the rhubarb, I understood the appeal of such an efficiently easy means to an end. Within a few minutes at a simmer, the rhubarb’s sinewy stature dwindled to something juicy and downy that was the rosy golden-pink of a morning sky, soft and tender but still textured, an aroma of floral tartness steaming from the pan.
The rhubarb did as rhubarb does, forming its own thick “pudding” with just a little nudging. One finger dipped into the warmth to taste sent me reeling with sense memory, overcome with just how very good its tart-sweetness was (the flavor sitting somewhere between a pineapple and a strawberry), better than I remembered. The added orange juice was subtle and only supported the flavor.
We used to have our mother’s stewed rhubarb with child-alluring accompaniments, such as ice cream or Cool Whip, or slathered over yellow cake. I savored this compote with a side of buttery shortbread cookies. But I could hear my mother saying that the only thing she needed to eat it with — and sometimes, not, when she lifted the bowl straight to her lips — was a spoon.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily
News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
Rhubarb Compote Recipe