July 4, 2005

Growing up in the 1950's, we ran safely through leaf dappled streets of North Omaha with our friends, sometimes riding our bikes and dragging red wagons full of little kids down to the banks

of the Missouri River or near the rail road tracks if there had been a de-railing. Down among what we thought of as ancient ruins grew wild asparagus and rhubarb, long forgotten along with old apricot and apple trees, iris and ditch lilies. We could spend the day or at least the morning down there and I still remember the tart taste of the rhubarb stems we chewed on.

GrandMa came down to check on us, and once seeing what we were about she brought back a shovel and dug some rhubarb, GrandPa planted it in the dark fertile soil behind the garage where our hidden fort was. Since their house has passed onto other hands over the years and I don't know the life span of the stuff I can only imagine that it's still back there and if I step back behind the garage, the years will somehow slip away among the columbine and iris back to childish laughter and simple days.

Rhubarb is not for every taste but is a handsome plant none the less. In the Midwest, and on quite a few farmsteads and in yards in our small town here there's usually a patch somewhere sometimes languishing. It takes at least two years to establish the plants and you harvest the stems (not the leaves) by cutting not pulling once they are at least one inch across and still tender. When the rhubarb starts to produce only small stalks it's time to dig and divide the plants adding compost and a layer of mulch in well drained soil in full sun.

If you hope to produce a lot of tender stalks in the next two years don't let your rhubarb plant blossom. In full flower rhubarb is really lovely with flower stalks standing 5 or 6 feet tall, but flowering robs the plant of it's strength. Remove any flower stalks as they appear, long before the buds begin to open. In late fall and after a hard freeze, remove any dead leaves and stalks. Spread 2 inches of compost around the plants and top that off with a fresh layer of clean mulch.

Rhubarb can be like zucchini, a little going a long way. When I asked my friend Shirley Ryan for her rhubarb pie recipe of course she offered the proposed filling as well. In times past when people offered me rhubarb the end product was paper sacks of the stuff. Trusting Shirley's good will, I said yes and will prepare the following pie for Tim today. She says this recipe came possibly from Betty Crocker or someone equally famous. Shirley is an absolutely sterling cook and baker and such a friend, she only gave me a manageable amount of rhubarb. Therefore I dedicate this article to Shirley Ryan.

Rhubarb Pie

  • 1 1/2 to 1 2/3 c. sugar
  • 1/3 c. flour or 2 Tbsp. tapioca
  • 1/2 tsp. grated orange peel (optional)
  • 4 c. rhubarb, cut in 1 inch pieces
  • 2 Tbsp. margarine or butter

Prepare pastry. Mix sugar, flour orange peel and rhubarb, spread in pastry lined pie plate. Dot with margarine or butter and top with pastry. Cut slits in top layer. Baker at 425 for 40 to 50 minutes.