When I was a kid I hated rhubarb.
Sure, I MIGHT have occasionally enjoyed a fresh deep-crimson stalk dipped in too-much-sugar-to-mention, and I was always hopeful it would change in flavour each time I tried it. But I was always wrong. The fact that we had the leafy plant growing in our yard didn’t encourage me to like it anymore, either. It looked like a weed, and it tasted like sour celery. It would take at least half a pound of sugar to make it barely tolerable.
But my mom and dad loved it – LOVED IT – and my little-kid mind took that as a measure of ‘adulthood,’ that it was a ‘grown-up’ food. Every summer my mom would make a pie or two for the family. NOT to disregard my mom’s efforts or baking abilities, but I hated it. I remember the first time I tried it was I was so excited because it LOOKED sweet like a strawberry or cherry pie – my favorites. But the first bite had me puckering and quivering in revulsion. Sure it was sweet, but not THAT sweet, and every summer when my dad would get excited at the prospect of one of mom’s rhubarb pies I, in turn, shrunk in further revulsion and disappointment.
But that adult-only rhubarb as I had come to deem it would follow me around my whole life.
When we were first married, my husband and I visited his uncle's cabin deep in the interior of BC. An old vegetable patch from a previous owner was still there, un-tended, but rhubarb had continued to grow over the years like a weed. Deep in the bush where we were the soil was rich and pure so everything grew bigger and lusher. The rhubarb stalks were almost as tall as me, and the leaves could easily protect me from any rainstorm. My husband saw the potential and I learned (with disgust) that he TOO loved rhubarb pies. We transplanted some and brought it home.
I made it clear, however - I would NOT be making any rhubarb pies. NO WAY.
But I humoured him and nurtured that little plant as best as I could. The novelty of growing it was enough for me. However too much sun and little water on our west-facing balcony of our apartment was too much for the transplanted little plant, and it withered away to nothing.
I wasn’t exactly sad.
I eventually upped my domesticity and started canning, but mostly jams. I found a recipe called Strawberry Jam Spoof and it took – of all things – rhubarb. The recipe also used peach flavoured Jello as the ‘gelling’ agent and the rhubarb as the ‘fruit.' Curious, despite my aversion to rhubarb, I made it and not only did it work, but it tasted great! No taste of icky sour rhubarb to be found!
Life went on and every time rhubarb appeared in my life, I cowered in horror, my salivary glands kicking into overdrive at the thought of the red stalks' sour, bitter bite (I may seem a bit over-dramatic but I REALLY didn't like it). Social functions where desserts were served were always a challenge, and I was always careful. It only took once of getting caught and I learned my lesson – just because a scrumptious looking square has a red fruit filling DOES NOT mean it’s strawberry or cherry or anything else pleasing to my palette (I’m not a fan of raspberries either, but that’s for another time).
Recently I was at a three-day out-of-town archery tournament and my sister and her husband were kind enough to let me stay with them. During those long and exhausting yet fun days my sister kept me well fed. The outdoor temperatures soared up to the 30’s and the heat, along with exercise, nervous tension and long days outside on-the-go worked up an appetite. Every evening when I arrived back at her house I was hungry enough to eat….anything. One night she showed me a pie she had for dessert, and my interest piqued beyond words. Until…..
She pointed out that it was a rhubarb (gag) cherry (yum) organic (?) pie. Now, I’m not against organic things, per se, but when I’m THAT hungry all I want want is sugar, fats, carbs, and everything unhealthy. I asked if there was sugar in it, in light of it being 'organic'. She assured me there was and insisted it was very very good.
The ‘athlete’ I am (not) should have been more open to an organic fruit pie. TRUTH: I’m not that much of an athlete, I have a sweet tooth that has me craving chocolate by 10am every day, and if I had my choice I’d smear REAL butter on everything – especially 2-inch slices of sourdough bread. But I fake it and try to exercise as much as I can, eat as healthy as I can, and avoid bread and real butter as much as I can. As for organics? Well…
So I kept an open mind and gratefully accepted a hearty slice of pie along with a dollop of each vanilla and pistachio ice cream.
My salivary glands shuddered in fearful anticipation. I knew – just KNEW – this wasn’t going to go well. Yes, there was the thought of cherries mixed in with the pie, and at LEAST I had the ice cream to serve as a ‘chaser’ - something to dull the unpalatable rhubarb that was threatening bring me down. But I would be a good house guest. I would be grateful. I would eat it. I would be polite. I would conduct myself in a lady-like manner.
And most of all, I told myself, I would LIKE it.
I took a forkful and readied myself. If need be, I consoled myself, I could inhale the slice as fast as I could before I could taste it. And there was always the ice cream.
I lifted the fork, took a bite, and….
And guess what?
I didn’t DIE.
I’m just hungry, I surmised. There’s no possible way I could actually like…
I took a bite of ice cream, then another bite of pie.
And again, I LIKED IT.
Yes, the cherries were saving me from self-induced extinction, but beyond them I could taste the rhubarb, and it was GOOD. I pushed aside the ice cream. I didn’t need it any more. I had more pie. My salivary glands were in heaven. I loved it and fought to lick the plate. What was wrong with me? Was I just so hungry that I couldn’t think straight? Was I just so over-heated I was losing my mind?
Or maybe – just maybe – I was finally becoming a – gasp! – a GROWN UP!
This VEGETABLE often confused as being a fruit had threatened to plague my existence all these 40-something years. Had I been wrong about it along? Had I never truly given it a fair chance? Maybe if I had tried it prepared in different ways I would have liked it sooner...
Before I could go down that never-ending curving road of what 'might have been' and ‘if only’, I stopped and had a pie-induced revelation - no better time than the present to start something new! Maybe I had grown up – my taste buds only, at least! I know they say tastes change as you get older – maybe this was one of those times.
Last year someone gave us part of their rhubarb plant and my husband was ecstatic. He knows I won’t bake with it, but he likes the novelty of having yet another plant to grow in our tiny backyard. But as I watched the leaves unfurl as winter turned to spring, and the stalks grew longer and redder with every day nearing summer, I've been wondering….
Maybe it was time to grow up just a little more…
(PS - pistachio ice cream is best on it’s own)