People look for signs of Spring in many places. To some the return of the Robins signals Spring, for others it's the flowering of Crocuses or Daffodils. Others get excited by the sight of geese heading back north and I can't deny I get a little tingle when I see these early signs of Spring, but I've lived in the Northern US for too long to get overly excited. Sure these signs mean Spring is upon us, but I've also lived through too many late Spring snowstorms to get too worked up by these early omens. Okay, so I'm a little jaded, but I admit, there is one thing that makes me as giddy as a school boy experiencing the first warm day of Spring when winter jackets are cast aside and bicycles are pulled out of winter storage. For me, that day comes when I glimpse the first stalks of rhubarb pushing up through the soil. That sight sets my heart to jumping, for I know that Spring truly has arrived and not far behind it, Summer. I know that once those leaves break through it will only be a matter of weeks before I can harvest enough for the first pie of the season, and once that happens it won't be much longer before the first strawberries of the season make their appearance, making a fine addition to any of the rhubarb desserts and dishes already created and consumed.
Rhubarb has quite a long history, dating back thousands of years to China and Asia where it was used medicinally for various gastro-intestinal issues. It was such an important plant to China that dignitaries used it to pay tributes and emperors threatened to cut off supplies to other nations if they didn't meet their demands. Though there are numerous species of rhubarb, most of the species used for culinary purposes are derived from this Chinese ancestor. By the time Marco Polo made his travels to the East, rhubarb was well known in Europe where the root was used medicinally as it was in China. I imagine that the plant was used for culinary purposes during most of this time, but it wasn't until the late 1600's that rhubarb became more well known as a culinary plant than as a medicinal plant.
Sometime in the mid 1700's Rhubarb made the jump across the Atlantic to the American colonies. Ben Franklin is credited with its introduction, but it is more likely that it was already established food stuff by the time he "introduced" it to the New World. Rhubarb remained very popular in the New England states where it was used as a pie filling and often used to make wine. As the country grew, rhubarb followed to the west coast, first along the northern states and then filtering down into the southern ones. By the middle of the 20th century rhubarb's popularity was dying out. The dishes and treats made with it were considered old fashioned and had fallen out of vogue in urban areas, though it still remained popular in rural areas, especially in New England and the Midwest. Luckily that is changing once again. Chefs and Pastry Chefs have rediscovered the joys of this tart vegetable that is used like a fruit. Pastry Chefs are using rhubarb in old ways such as in pies or dessert bars and discovering new ways to incorporate rhubarb's flavor into new dishes. Chefs have discovered rhubarb's tartness makes a wonderful foil to rich dishes. It especially plays well against pork and fowl such as duck and goose. It doesn't stop there either, bartenders have discovered that Rhubarb's tartness can be a great substitute for lemon juice and are creating a whole new world of cocktails with rhubarb at its center.
All this experimentation is great and I love the fact that rhubarb has become somewhat popular again. I'll eat rhubarb in any way, shape or form, but I have to admit, my favorite way to eat rhubarb is in a pie, alone, without the strawberries. Just a piece of rhubarb pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. To me nothing says springtime and summer more than that.
Rhubarb Pie with Almond Crumb Topping