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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

cross cultural rhubarb & my peeps

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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.

So I was happy for something to synchronize with strawberry-rhubarb pie and divert from oh-aren't-I-a-food-goddess fantasies when I read something about Samuel Pepys in the Writer's Almanac on Memorial Day. Thanks to 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.
Raw rhubarb is an adventure, but I love rhubarb best in pie with strawberries. Rhubarb feels gritty on your teeth, especially raw. Even in a pie by itself, it has a texture that makes your teeth feel like the enamel just dissolved. But when it's paired with strawberries, the grittiness goes away.

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.

It's funny, the things that educate you about life. I first heard of Samuel Pepys and his diary at a restaurant with his name. When you're 19 and trying to make your pocket money last for eight weeks, visiting shops and museums and falling in love with things that have price tags, you eat a lot of street food, like white cheese, tomato and butter sandwiches on baguettes. I had never eaten or seen a tomato and cheese sandwich, had I even had cheese other than plastic cheese known as American? Nor had I ever eaten tomato, butter and bread in one bite. I liked it. I liked it more than Miracle Whip, and at least as much as mayonnaise. But one evening some of us decided to splurge and make reservations at the Samuel Pepys restaurant overlooking the Thames River after a play in the theater district. I felt sophisticated eating a prime piece of British cow with my new Boston friends, dressed up in the one dress I'd packed in the suitcase between one pair of cut-off jeans, one pair of straight-leg red-tab Levi's, three t-shirts and a sweater for the summer, as we dined by candle light with flickering London lights reflected in the river outside. I remember John-of-the-khaki-pants, the bearded student who never wore blue jeans because he wanted to be different, pontificating about Samuel Peeps when we entered the restaurant and saw pages of the diary under glass. I saw how Peeps was spelled, and I silently learned that even English names can sound nothing like they appear.

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.


-Betty Crocker
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59 comments:

Ann said...

YUM!!!!!!!!!!

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

Amazing how many travels, tastes and thoughts can be touched off by the mention of a simple anniversary. Loved every bit of it, grit and all.

Marcie said...

I love rhubarb. Its sweet/sour taste..its gritty feel!!! Your words elicit all sorts of memories that attach themselves to rhubarb pie!

maggie said...

Your great post reminded of me of when I was in Korea and found 'Corn Flakes' in a store and how it was soooo comforting to find a food from home.
Eating raw rhubarb? My mouth puckers just at the thought.

Gwei Mui said...

Rhubarb - oh that takes me straight back to my childhood. Watching my Grandmother boil and sugar sticks and sticks of rhubarb, some was turned into jam, some was stewed, some was pickled sweet, some sour. TSP (the Samuel Pepys) still exists if it's the same one I'm thinking on Stew Lane over looking the river Thames. They still serve a decent steak at a very fair price or sausage and mash! This was a wonderful post. Thanks for sharing

Anet said...

My grandmother had a huge rhubarb patch in her garden... along with acres of pumpkins.
I can remember a beautiful pie sitting on her table. It was a rhubarb, she gave me some...
I had it in my mind it should taste like a cherry pie for some reason. It didn't. I guess I made a face and she sweetly said my grandpa would eat it for me.


I love the little stains on your recipe book page, a sign that it's well used and loved!

João said...

Paula had recently a go at strawberry and rhubarb pie and it come out delicious...So globalization isn't only bad things, this sharing of nice things can only turn out as a the HUGEST nice thing humanity has ever experienced(well I'm bound to be carried away by this stuff, I love food).

The Bug said...

This is spooky - I had my first taste of strawberry-rhubarb pie this weekend at my dad's house (both ingredients from his garden). I loved it because I find strawberry pie to be too sweet sometimes, but the rhubarb cuts that & makes it just right.

My grandmother always made rhubarb pies (without strawberries) & I always hated them - mostly because I expected them to taste like apple pies. Adding strawberries makes them perfect!

Susan said...

Ohhh, you dog you, I want a piece of that pie!! My mouth went into hyper-salivating mode when I saw the picture! I have no idea why my mom never made it. We always had rhubarb and we always had strawberries, but ne'er the twain did meet! She always stewed it and we ate it with biscuits, or just out of a dessert bowl for, well, dessert. I didn't really care for it that way, but "you get what you get, and you don't throw a fit"!

Loved this post, Ruthie!

Jeanie said...

I don't know much about rhubarb other than it is enormous, and I'd heard very bitter, and since I don't make pie, well... I always sort of gave it up. After reading this, I'll rethink it when I see it on a menu or a potluck!

The history part is wonderful and one of the reasons I so enjoy visiting here. Anyone could post a recipe, but you do the legwork, too! And it makes everything all the more memorable!

cathyswatercolors said...

Hi Ruth, don't you just love Betty Crocker, simple and delicious.
Is you rubarb early this year? It seems like our weather is so warm this year the flowers about a few weeks ahead.
Rubarb sure stirred up the memories. I envy your travel,when you were young. So perfect.

I am happily anticipating the end of the school year. I bet Don is excited too. He can be your house husband while you work.

Beautiful night tonight enjoying every minute.
peace my friend.

Kamana said...

i've only ever had rhubarb once. and it wasnt memorable. but it is somethin i would really like to try.

Ruth said...

Hi, Ann, I'm glad it was tasty! Welcome to synch. :)

Ruth said...

Lorenzo, yes, it's happened several times with TWA already. Thank you again.

Ruth said...

Hi, Marcie, it seems a lot of us have childhoods with rhubarb in them!

Bella Rum said...

I loved reading this, Ruth. It's so much fun to hear about your youthful adventure, and I enjoy it when you give us a little history about something like rhubarb or the egg plant, and then the bonus - A RECIPE! Thanks, Ruth!
Bella

Ruth said...

Maggie, that happened to us in Istanbul too, well actually in Greece. The Corn Flakes were an expensive home comfort though!

Ruth said...

Gwei Mui, wow, I didn't know there were that many ways to eat rhubarb. Yes, that's the same restaurant, on Stew Lane. I looked it up on a map. I like thinking that you have been there. :)

Ruth said...

So, Anet, I wonder if you have tried rhubarb pie since. And I'm guessing your grandmother made pumpkin pie from her pumpkins.

You're right about the cookbook, it's the one I grab the most often.

Ruth said...

João, that's so nice. Food is such an accessible way to experience another culture. I grew up without what I would consider ethnic dishes, but instead just some Americana that was pretty boring, though it was fine and healthy, and we were well fed. I do remember when my mom started making curried rice, when Indian friends came over. I wonder what they thought of her version. I believe they were touched by her efforts, in any case.

Ruth said...

Dana, well that's fun! Your dad has a great garden, and I like that composter he has.

I know that some people think strawberries make rhubarb pie too sweet. I do use less sugar than the recipe calls for, even in the strawberry version, which calls for less than the rhubarb-alone one.

Pauline said...

loved the wandering-around-the-room-let's-talk-about-this feeling of your post. And look at all I learned about you, about rhubarb, about Samuel "Peeps" Pepys! Great read.

Ruth said...

Susie, I just remembered, thanks to you, that sometimes we had huge pots of stewed rhubarb too. I didn't care for that much either. But it must have had a lot of healthy attributes. Rhubarb is a mouth astringent. And it also "keeps things moving" as they say, which was why the Europeans paid an arm & a leg for it back in the day.

Ruth said...

Hi, Jeanie, maybe we should go to the Grand Traverse pie restaurant for lunch, and you can try it there, before going to the trouble of making it. Their pies are pretty good, but I haven't tried the s-r.

Thank you for your kind words.

Ruth said...

Cathy, you may be right about rhubarb being early, I don't pay close enough attention, though I will now that Don moved the rhubarb to the central garden. Yes, Betty Crocker is the cookbook I pull out most often.

I envy you and Don your summers. And it is so nice to have one person stay home and tend to things.

Peace to you too, my dear.

Ruth said...

Kamana, rhubarb alone just stewed is not remarkable. In pie with strawberries or blueberries, especially topped with ice cream, it's quite a treat.

Ingrid said...

Thank you for this post, Ruth. The rhubarb and strawberries take me back home to my Mom's kitchen. I started rhubarb in the garden last year and still don't have enough for a pie-just for a smidgen of sauce. The strawberries are ripening in the backyard right now.
Your London memories take me back to my months at my college's London Center in 1972. As I age, I'm amazed at the spontaneous memories evoked by the smallest things.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Pauline. I loved your current storm piece very much too.

Yes, I do tend to wander around the room. :) I didn't wander around Pepys too much, I wish I had included more about him. He really did chronicle some historical events, like the Great Plague, and the Great Fire of London in 1666. Besides his daily rather tedious (if you ask me) life.

Ruth said...

Hi, Ingrid! It's so good to see you. Well we share the same environs, but our rhubarb is just huge. Don moved it from the side of the barn last year to the garden bed, and it took off. The stalks are already so thick (1.5") I wondered if they would have much flavor. I used the thinner ones for pie. Yes, Don brought me 3 ripe berries this morning and asked me to do a taste test. One type is the everlastings (in the top photo of this post) and the other are I don't know what type, but smaller. I was amazed at how different they taste from each other.

How nice that you studied in London. I wish I could spend months there now. I was there for a week with a study abroad group from our department a couple years ago. We stayed at University College's dorm, where Virginia Woolf once lived (and Maynard Keynes at another point). I wonder if you were near that area. Well, it's a huge city.

Sandy said...

Fascinating post, I really enjoyed it and the "visuals" kind of kept coming, I saw you sitting in that restaurant.

That photograph of the strawberries is beautiful.

I don't think I've ever tasted Rhubarb.

I remember my first taste of Olalliberry (sp)... up at the central coast, near San Luis Obispo. We went to an apple farm and they had various homemade pies for sale.

I am so uneducated when it comes to all the various fruits and veggies we have on this planet.

PurestGreen said...

I just used up a glut of (wonderful Scottish!) rhubarb on the weekend, making a rhubarb and date chutney. It is gorgeous - the recipe from bbc good food web site.

Great post. Made me smile.

Christina said...

this is just wonderful, my friend.
and yummy! this is the way i adore rhubarb the most. we have a bush out back. : )
xo

Oliag said...

Dear Ruth,
Yet another wonderful post...

I think you already know my feelings about mixing strawberries with rhubarb...rhubarb's taste is really so delicate I cannot add anything else to it or it is overwhelmed...don't I sound like a rhubarb connoisseur? And that is the same cookbook that my recipe comes from...well I'm sure mine is a much older version as it belonged to my mother...

One of the first things I read every day is The Writer's Almanac...if I have time I listen to it too...I love Garrison Keillor's voice...

Ann said...

green lorry, red lorry, yellow lorry etc

I just taught my students this tonque twister, and the New Zealand kids have no idea what a lorry is. I know, because in Sarawak, I learn a lorry is a lorry, and I didn't know what a truck was.

You should actually LOl at some of the things my kids and even adult students say.

I like strawberries, but I confess, I don't like rhubabb, but it is making a come back in high class restaurant.

dutchbaby said...

Reading this post reminds me why I like to have a stretch of time available before I read your posts. I spent an inordinate amount of time at the Samuel Pepys site. I simply had to see who wrote out that script. Truly fascinating - thanks for sending me there.

Your summer adventure sounds like it was life-changing. You were exactly the same age my daughter is today. I hope you got to see the Jungfrau and maybe a spend a little time in Interlaken. I have fond memories of riding train after train, climbing to the top of Europe, taking in that glorious view...

As for the different versions English, I sometimes feel that way when I travel in the South, where "y'all" is a proper pronoun and its plural is "all y'all".

deb said...

Fabulous post.
I 'd love to read more of these adventures.

My mother always made vats of runny sweet rhubarb , in season, or from frozen. It was our only treat many times. Most of the time. I haven't had it for years though. Perhaps I've had my fill :)

Pat said...

My mother-in-law used to make strawberry/rhubarb jam, and strawberry/rhubarb cobbler. They were both so good.

I was always told as a child that if I ate rhubarb raw it was poisonous!

Love the stories of your travels from your youth!

Vagabonde said...

I don’t remember eating une tarte à la rhubarbe when growing up in France. I think the first time I had it was in San Francisco.
Last summer I did make strawberry/rhubarb jam and actually we had some on toast this morning. If I make it again I’ll use less strawberry because it overpowers the rhubarb, even though I use 1/3 strawberry and 2/3 rhubarb. I like to read about your trips to Europe, please write some more about them.

Deborah said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this, Ruth. You write so well of all sorts of things, and it always feels like I'm across the table from you with a mug of steaming hot coffee.

Your reaction to England was like my own at the age of 14 - I felt like I had stepped into a novel. Could hardly believe it was so different, and fell in love with the place. Years later when I took my kids there, they had a hilarious time in the grocery stores reading aloud from food packaging - delighted by the differences in the suppoedly same language.

I am also a rhubarb lover bur havent' had any for a few years. This will make me look for some in the market! Thanks for the recipe and the history and the memories!

margie said...

our cottage is near a little place called Eagle Lake, Rhubarb Capital of Ontario.

Ruth said...

Sandy, Olalli-what? I've never heard of that! I am very uneducated about that one. I know what you mean, I keep learning about new fruits and veggies all the time, even here in this country. Um, like that one.

Ruth said...

Sophia (such a beautiful name), wow, does that sound good. I will look that up. I LOVE chutney (even though we don't eat much meat now, for which it's a great condiment, obviously).

Ruth said...

Hi, Christina, enjoy that rhubarb, you food goddess you. xo

Ruth said...

Yes, Oliag, I thought of you throughout the writing of this post, remembering that strawberries disturb rhubarb for you.

I had the previous edition of this cookbook, maybe the same you have. We received it as a wedding shower gift back in 1978. I like this newer edition because it's spiral bound.

Keillor's voice is one of our American treasures.

Ruth said...

Ann, you remind me of when we lived in Istanbul, and the word for truck was kamyon, which comes from the French I think. It's fascinating.

Really, good ole country rhubarb coming into its own with chefs, eh?

Ruth said...

Dutchbaby, ha, sorry about that! :)

As you know now, I was tickled and touched by your comment about the Jungfrau and the train and your daughter, since I am working on the next post with the Jungfrau.

Yes, as for plurals, I wish we had a plural you in English, or else adopt "y'all" universally! And you should have heard a couple of the students on my trip with their THICK Boston accents, those flat Rs, wow. And Baston.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Deb, very much.

Yes, I remembered after your comment and a couple others that we had big pots of stewed rhubarb too. I think I must have extricated it from my mind. :)

Ruth said...

Pat, strangely enough, the leaves are poisonous, but not the stalks. (So don't go skimming the tops of the rhubarb plants like the ice scream.)

Ruth said...

Vagabonde, it seems we each have different levels of strawberry and rhubarb tolerance. Oliag doesn't want any strawberry with hers.

I do have some good stories from that summer. Thank you for your request, I'll think about that.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Deborah! I'm so glad to see you, I've missed you. I will be reading your new post in a bit. Yay! You write so very well.

Ha, well yes! Reading from food labels would be entertaining, you're so right. And have you noticed how different the packaging looks in different countries for the same products? Like Corn Flakes.

Vagabonde said she has never seen une tarte à la rhubarbe when she grew up in France. I wonder if you'll find any.

Ruth said...

Shoot, Margie, your current post titled "hey kath" - if that's what you're talking about, I'm in love. Every photo is delectable, and I want it. Now.

Babs-beetle said...

The only way to eat rhubarb pie is with warm custard poured over it ;)

Never eaten a cheese and tomato sandwich? Then I've never eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich either.

Terresa said...

Ruth, you are a marvel. I tasted the Thames, the rhubarb, and warm custard in this. Every Last Bit.

Ruth said...

Babs, are you just being spiteful? Or is that the truth?

:)

Ruth said...

Thank you so much, Terresa.

Ginnie said...

You knew, didn't you, that Bill made many rhubarb and rhubarb-strawberry pies in his time, right? And Mark would help him, sitting up on the kitchen counter when he was still a wee lad. Those are the days of memories...for I, too, love rhubarb and rhubarb pies.

Here in The Netherlands, the Dutch hardly ever bake (their own) pies. They may buy tarts from the bakery for a special coffee treat but they don't call it dessert. They make rhubarb sauce (like apple sauce) and serve it as a side dish with the main meal. I love learning about these things...differences in customs and not just in language.

Peter said...

I'm also a rhubarb fan, so popular in my native country, but needed this post to get such a complete story about it! I'm happy to see that it's slowly returning also on some French menues!

Ruth said...

Boots, now that you mention it, yes, I remember that Bill made pies. Precious Mark helping, I love that image.

Well, when pastry shops have good stuff, there's no need to make it at home, right? In Istanbul, the pastries looked great and tasted terrible. But rhubarb sauce as a side dish is brilliant, it would be a fine accompaniment to many things. I know you are like a sponge right now, my dear sister.

Ruth said...

Peter, oh! I'm glad to hear that too!