Rhubarb’s Ruby Submission

Note: This won the 2013 IACP Bert Greene Journalism Award. It was a pain to write. It was about what I think of as an Irish ingredient, which I then digested in terms of my Chinese father and my English stepdad. Enjoy!

Hard, acid rhubarb reliably softens with heat. If only people did the same

When I was young, my Chinese father ate the pokeweed that was growing in our garden, insisting that it was rhubarb. He vomited for two days straight. He didn’t even like rhubarb; he was just trying to prove a point, objecting to my mother spending money on something that he believed was already in our backyard. The irony is that my mother was probably cooking so much rhubarb because she was having an affair with a man who loved it. Rhubarb is my English stepfather Jonathan’s favorite food, stewed with sugar. The episode was one of the ways in which their relationship poisoned my dad.


My mother could not have chosen to fall in love with two more different men. One was a Chinese engineer who drank Miller Lite, the other, an English historian who preferred wine. My father was blunt, with a violent temper, a maelstrom in a five-foot four frame. Jonathan is tall, gentle, and diffident. But while my father confronted the world head-on, my stepfather would rather hide from the more disquieting things in life. Now, when I see rhubarb in the market, green striped with red like a vegetal candy cane, I think of these two men in my life, and my mind hearkens to love and its accompanying astringency.

Raw rhubarb is fibrous, blisteringly acid to taste, and its leaves are toxic. 5,000 years ago, the Tibetans and the Chinese started using rhubarb as a laxative, and it hung around for several thousand years without being considered an actual food. It was only in the 18th century that the English started baking it into tarts.

Trust the English, who are in many ways the masters of both pudding and perversity, to take something so unpalatable and turn it into dessert. (I am sure that my father, who blamed England for much of what is wrong with the world, would have had something to say about the subject.) The English love rhubarb. They have rhubarb jelly, rhubarb tart, rhubarb crumble, and rhubarb jam, rhubarb boiled sweets . 1960s English radio broadcasters murmured the phrase “rhubarb-rhubarb” to duplicate the sound of a crowd. These days, in England, if someone is saying something that you don’t want to hear, you stick your fingers in your ears, and instead of saying “la-la-la,” you say, “rhubarb-rhubarb.”

I also love rhubarb, and the way that its dazzling color heralds spring. I love its ruby submission when I cut it up and simmer it gently in the pot with nutmeg, vanilla, and Burgundy. To be honest, I liked it when my mother was making deep-dish strawberry rhubarb pies all those years ago, but never understood the fuss. When I turned my back on my Chinese father, though, I adopted some of my English stepfather’s culinary tastes, and with all the toast, soft boiled eggs, kedgeree there came a passion for rhubarb.

Rhubarb is an unwieldy purchase—tall, too bulky, and I know that when I bring it home I have a lot of work to do. I tend to like to watch as it succumbs from crisp to velvet, leaking its blood red fluid. The wonderful thing about rhubarb is once you’ve accepted its spiky nature, it’s easy to prepare. You toss it with some sugar, and let the heat do the rest. I like it in my oatmeal, as a side with my meat (it is like a Western version of sweet-and-sour sauce, for it makes you pucker), as a quick crumble. I have liked it with berries, added with the rhubarb while it cooks or scattered in at the end, but these days I prefer my rhubarb pure. I also stir in a few cubes of butter, for the silkiness.

The last time I was preparing rhubarb—as a sauce for duck, and then spooned over yogurt the next morning for breakfast—I found myself singing the Pete Seeger song “Goodnight, Irene.” When I was growing up, my parents used to love those hippie folk ballads, and “Goodnight Irene” was one of the most soothing tunes I knew. It was my personal lullaby.

I would murmur the lyrics to myself before I went to sleep, without realizing that they were about suicide and despair. “Sometimes I live in the country/Sometimes I live in town/Sometimes I take the great notion/to jump in the river and drown.” Gentle melody with an underlying rue is what rhubarb is about. You may give in to rhubarb’s lushness, but you cannot escape that what you are eating was originally a hard and sour thing.

But maybe this is what I love about rhubarb: It reminds me that life is full of surprises. Who would have thought that rhubarb could mellow in the way that it does? For years, the relationship between my two fathers was a sour and nearly bloody thing. The antagonism came from my father, who would frequently threaten to shoot Jonathan, who would then hide. Then, suddenly, long after my mother had remarried, my father sweetened. We were at the wake of an old family friend and my father walked up to Jonathan with his hand extended. He still loved the woman that Jonathan had taken away, and yet at the age of fifty, he was willing to forgive them both. My father said, as he shook my stepfather’s hand, “Well, I just decided that life was too short.” And when my father was killed in a motorcycle accident, it was his former rival, Jonathan, who organized his funeral.

Perhaps it is just a coincidence that, when I find myself preparing more rhubarb than usual, I also find myself about to fall in love with someone unreliable. After all, rhubarb starts appearing in spring, when the sun is out, the leaves are budding. I am not generally a fan of love; my childhood made me wary. Still, from time to time my normally acerbic self becomes wont to soften and even to bleed. With rhubarb, you can take something with so many defenses and melt it into something gentle. It rarely works in human relationships, but thank goodness that with rhubarb, there is a formula. So as for the rest of my life? Rhubarb-rhubarb, I would rather not know.


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