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Jessie Veeder, Published June 22 2013

Showing love with rhubarb

It’s finally toppled over into summer at the ranch, and as I watch all things grow and reach to the sky, blossom and sprout and green up, I talk about it with neighbors, friends and family.

We talk about grass and rain, lilacs and sun, yard work and weeds. We talk about wood ticks and sunburns, the short growing season and what we’ve planted in our gardens.

And we talk about rhubarb.

Because it’s a universal language around here. I mean, even those of us who didn’t get around to putting seeds in the ground this summer likely have a plant or seven growing along the backyard fence or under tall grass in the horse pasture.

If you’re from the prairie, you have undoubtedly tasted and experimented with rhubarb in many forms: pickled, cooked, souped, sauced, dried and made into wine.

And at neighborhood picnics, brandings or church basement lunches, you’ve likely loaded up your paper plate, poured yourself a weak cup of coffee and enjoyed rhubarb jams, syrups, pies, cakes, cookies, puddings, salads and breads.

And, if you’re really thrifty, you’ve probably considered making it into clothing or canoes or even shelters. It’s so abundant around here my husband’s working on a way to burn it for an alternative, renewable and cheap fuel source.

I mean, I had a patch of it growing on the land behind our house and didn’t even know it until Pops came over with his shovel looking to add another plant to his garden.

“Wait. I have rhubarb?” I said as he marched behind the house and over to the area where my grandmother once kept her garden. And sure enough, growing under tall grass at the edge of the spindly plum-tree row, looking dangerously similar to my enemy, burdock, sat three big, leafy rhubarb plants.

As Pops dug his shovel around the perimeter of the smaller plant and placed it in the back of his pickup for transplanting, it occurred to me that these plants have likely been growing here my entire life, the very crop that supplied the rhubarb for the jam, syrup and crisp I remember from my childhood – a true heirloom vegetable.

Now, no one has ever accused me of possessing any Betty Crocker or Martha Stewart-like traits. In fact, when it comes to baking, my skills generally begin with a delicious idea and end in the bakery section of our local grocery store.

But when I moved out to the ranch to live in my grandmother’s house a few years ago, the domestic, apron-clad ranch-woman inside me smelled that rhubarb and she wanted out.

So out she came, with wild, frizzy hair and flour stuck to her sweaty forehead, determined to make something delicious out of the only edible thing growing in her yard.

My first attempt in that hot and muggy farmhouse was a strawberry-rhubarb jam project that began at 9 p.m. on a Thursday evening with a perfectly unstructured plan, one that failed to consider ingredients, timing or supplies (like jars) before steamrolling into full swing and ending up as a hot sticky, delicious mess at 1 a.m.

It’s a memory that’s faded a bit as I’ve settled in on this place, one that only hangs on to how proud I felt when I woke up with the sun to find my jelly indeed looked like jelly and tasted like childhood in my grandmother’s kitchen.

I’m on my third rhubarb season at the ranch, and each year my dad cuts the stalks from his mother’s transplanted rhubarb and plops them on my kitchen counter or leaves a bag in the seat of my pickup to take home with me after a visit.

I’m not sure what he has in mind when he does this – maybe he’s got his heart set on a cake or a pie or a sauce he can drizzle over ice cream – he doesn’t make any specific requests.

He just cuts his mother’s rhubarb and hands it to his daughter, a universal language of memories, family and the sweet taste of summer toppling over.

A language I’m happy to speak.

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.