Michigan Spring: Rhubarb

One of my family's treasures is a black and white newspaper photo of my grandfather as a dapper young man in 1930s short pants picking rhubarb in his dad's rhubarb hothouse near Detroit.  Apparently, rhubarb (aka pie plant) in America saw its greatest popularity in a heyday between WWI and WWII, during which time farmers responded to the demand by growing hothouse rhubarb near Detroit.  The idea was that after the roots had been plowed up in the fall and then allowed to freeze, they could be planted in a heated greenhouse where the plants would grow and rhubarb could be harvested (and shipped out of state and out of season) from January-April. According to Edward Hafeli (whose father helped start the practice)

"The hothouse rhubarb industry prospered for decades. At one time root houses appeared on virtually every farm in Macomb County. The crop became so  important that in the late 1940s and early 1950s, an annual Rhubarb Festival was held in Utica, complete with a queen  and her court.  A headline in the Utica Sentinel in October 1953 proclaimed Utica the “Rhubarb Center of the World.”  

Well, even if Utica is no longer Rhubarb Center of the World, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Michigan is still the third largest producer of rhubarb in the country. They say "this is due to the ideal climate here in Michigan, with an average winter temperature below 40° F and an average summer temperature below 75° F." 

According to the Rhubarb Compendium (RC), the earliest historical records of rhubarb come from 2700 BC China where it was cultivated as a medicinal purgative. There are dozens of varieties of rhubarb (some sources say up to 60), some with red or pink stalks, some with green. Some varieties are planted more for medicinal than edible purposes.  And, according to the RC,  by 1778 when it was first recorded as a food plant in Europe, it was being used as a filling for tarts and pies. 

Varying accounts are given of rhubarb's arrival in America, each at a later date than the last. 

- From What's Cooking America: "History: By the late 1700s, this plant, known for over 200 years as only a gardener's curiosity in England, first appeared in America. It is rumored that Benjamin Franklin, a scientist and America's ambassador to France, sent the first rhubarb plants back to America for his relatives to cultivate. Rhubard officially became a fruit in 1947, when the U.S. Customs Court of New York, declared it so.  Most scientists still consider it a vegetable."

- According to the Rhubarb Compendium: "Early records of rhubarb in America identify an unnamed Maine gardener as having obtained seed or root stock from Europe in the period between 1790-1800. He introduced it to growers in Massachusetts where its popularity spread and by 1822 it was sold in produce markets."

From Wikipedia:  "Rhubarb first came to America in the 1820s, entering the country in Maine and Massachusetts and moving westwards with the settlers. Rhubarb is now grown in many areas and thanks to greenhouse production is available throughout much of the year. Grown primarily for its fleshy petioles, commonly known as rhubarb sticks or stalks. In temperate climates rhubarb is one of the first food plants to be ready for harvest, usually in mid to late spring (April/May in the Northern Hemisphere, October/November in the Southern Hemisphere), and the season for field-grown plants lasts until September. In the northwestern US states of Oregon and Washington, there are typically two harvests: one from late April to May and another from late June and into July. Rhubarb is ready to be consumed as soon as it is harvested, and freshly cut stalks will be firm and glossy.

The colour of the rhubarb stalks can vary from the commonly associated deep red, through speckled pink, to simply green. The colour results from the presence of anthocyanins, and varies according to both rhubarb variety and production technique. The colour is not related to its suitability for cooking: The green-stalked rhubarb is more robust and has a higher yield, and the red-coloured stalks are more popular with consumers."

So, my rhubarb plans for this year include:  digging up some plants from a friend's house to put in the front yard as part of my edible landscaping assault on the lawn; freezing some to brighten up a (far) future winter day with a rhubarb pie; making some rhubarb-ginger conserves for my toast or yogurt; and perhaps even making some pink rhubarb sauce like my gramma used to make. Looks like there are plenty of recipes to explore, from rhubarb dumplings to rhubarb wine in the Rhubarb Recipes section of the Rhubarb Compendium. And I'm definitely going to re-visit that strawberry-rhubarb shortcake that I made last year. 

Oh, and my own little rhubarb plants out in the back forty (inches rather than acres), are just poking their heads up above ground.  I'm trying not to scare them, until the day I come to take them away to the great pie factory in the sky. 

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