Call it a fruit or call it a vegetable, rhubarb — an early bloomer — is the basis for cozy crumbles and delectable sauces.
I have no quarrel with rhubarb. I love this plant.The tightly rolled green and pink leaves pushing out of the just-thawed ground, growing into firm stalks with little attention or care from me, make it seem like a gift. It’s the first real crop to harvest in this non-gardener’s garden. My two plants supply a summer’s worth of delicious desserts and condiments, and if I remember to remove the flowering stalks at the base before the plant goes to seed, I can keep the harvest going well into August.
Native to northern Asia, rhubarb’s earliest use was strictly medicinal, the roots of the rhizome dried and powdered. In China, it was valued as a tonic for digestion, a mild laxative, and a multipurpose healer of wounds, burns, and other ailments. By the Middle Ages, it was prized in Europe, a precious commodity more costly than cinnamon and saffron.
Only the availability of sugar made cooking with the tart, fleshy stalks possible. Some say that Benjamin Franklin brought the first seeds to America. Others (the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America among them) credit an unnamed gardener in Maine, who obtained seed or root stock from Europe around 1800. The plant then migrated south to Massachusetts, where its popularity spread. By 1822, rhubarb was sold in produce markets along the Eastern Seaboard.
The earliest culinary use of rhubarb was primarily as a filling for tarts and pies—in 19th-century America, it was called “pie plant”—and this is still true today. But there’s so much more you can do with rhubarb: purée it for sweet and savory sauces, bake it in an upside-down cake, toss it in a salad. Packed full of nutrients, very high in potassium, manganese, and vitamin C, the tart taste of rhubarb reminds us that summer is almost here.