I had been picking rhubarb and strawberries, making pie and photographing the process (hahaha, only a blogger) during Memorial Day weekend, nagging myself: If you post at sync about making a beautiful pie you might mislead people into thinking you are like Nigella Lawson (the British food maven who showed me that food is sensual). You are not like her, except that you love food.
I'm not going to show you all my "warts", but I also don't want to misrepresent the facts.
Lorenzo, I resubscribed to the Writer's Almanac. I like reading the poems Keillor picks, and also the literary birthdays and histories. The May 31st post said it was the last day Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary, in 1669.
This jiggled loose two 1975 London eating memories, one with my peeps, I mean Pepys, and the other with rhubarb.
When I was little, our neighbor had rhubarb growing in the back yard. Jimmie and I used to go out in May and pick and munch a stalk right there, its sourness making our faces twist up like this just born punk rhubarb head in Don's garden this spring, below.
At the end of the summer that I turned 14, I sat on the cabbage rose carpeted floor of my parents' house (which by the way had been Jimmie's, the one with the rhubarb, whose grand-in-a-soul-sense house we bought when I turned 12) while my brother Bennett showed slides on a big screen of his tour through Europe on a history study program with his college. I vowed sitting there under the snow-covered Jungfrau that I would go on that same trip when I was in college. The summer I turned 19, after one year of college in Illinois, I hopped on a plane with twenty-some students from Boston and fulfilled my vow getting my brand new passport stamped in 10 countries over an eight week period. Those were the days of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out of the backs of vans, sleeping in campgrounds outside Paris and Amsterdam, crawling out of the sleeping bag and tent and stepping in a cow pie, with Elsie the cow chewing grass ten feet from my face.
I was somewhat prepared for Europe to be different than the U.S., where English was not the native language. But I didn't expect England to feel as different as it did, which resulted in my having more culture shock there than in other places. How could we speak the same language but have so many different words for things, like lorry for truck and jumper for cardigan sweater?
London came in the second of eight weeks, and I was already feeling a tad homesick. My friend and I found an inexpensive restaurant on a London street, and when I saw rhubarb pie on the menu, I felt like my parents' back yard was behind me, and I asked for some. "They have rhubarb in England!" I declared. Little did I know that Europeans had it first and took it to America with them back in the day. (When I say "first," I mean before us Americans. The Chinese had rhubarb thousands of years before any of us.) The rhubarb tart was warm and served with warm custard in a small white pitcher on the side to pour over it. I had never in my life had warm custard on anything, and it was fabulous. Boxed instant vanilla pudding does not translate into this experience. There was something in that moment that morphed home and foreign into something new inside me.
And that weird spelling of that other word with a silent letter, the "h" in rhubarb? The Online Etymology Dictionary says:
rhubarb - c.1390, from O.Fr. rubarbe, from M.L. rheubarbarum, from Gk. rha barbaron "foreign rhubarb," from rha "rhubarb" (associated with Rha, ancient Scythian name of the River Volga) + barbaron, neut. of barbaros "foreign." Grown in China and Tibet, it was imported into ancient Europe by way of Russia. Spelling altered in M.L. by association with rheum. European native species so called from 1650. Baseball slang meaning "loud squabble on the field" is from 1938, of unknown origin, said to have been first used by broadcaster Garry Schumacher. Perhaps connected with use of rhubarb as a word repeated by stage actors to give the impression of hubbub or conversation (attested from 1934).
Rhubarb is a great world traveler, starting in China at least 2,000 years BC. You can read more about the history of rhubarb, including Marco Polo's excitement about finding it in China, because Europeans were crazy for Chinese rhubarb's medicinal qualities, here.
I leave you with the recipe for rhubarb pie. The version with strawberries is toward the bottom. Oh, and you know how you can find anything on the Internet? Here is a site with daily readings from Samuel Pepys' diary.