Today, rhubarb (ROO-bahrb) is a plentiful, if underappreciated, herald of spring and summer—pawned off by fruitful gardeners as readily as zucchini. But that wasn’t always the case. In Medieval Europe, rhubarb was more valuable than precious spices like cinnamon and saffron. Even opium couldn’t compete with rhubarb’s lofty price.
This leafy perennial (botanically a vegetable but classified as a fruit) is native to Asia and has stalks ranging from pink to ruby red. Chinese texts list rhubarb root as a medicinal as early as 2700 B.C.E. Depending on the dynasty, it was credited with curing maladies ranging from the plague to venereal disease. News of rhubarb’s powers reached Europe before the plant itself—hence the price at market.
Rhubarb’s consumption as a food came slowly. Perhaps early cooks approached it greens first—a move that could have poisoned rhubarb’s reputation since leaves contain oxalic acid, a potentially toxic substance. Early English recipes for rhubarb pie show up in the early 1800s, roughly the same time sugar for sweetening the sour stalk became cheap and widely available. Today, rhubarb is so synonymous with pie, some people call it “pie plant.”
Rhubarb is a cool season plant, in season from April through September. It is not easily grown in the Southern United States. In Northern climates, however, it thrives, and those with a bumper crop might explore rhubarb’s savory side. Rhubarb makes intriguing chutneys and salsas, and mixologists shake things up with rhubarb cocktails. Cooking softens rhubarb’s fibrous nature, but a long maceration in honey can produce a sweet and crunchy compote. One pound of rhubarb equals about 3 cups chopped, or 2 cups cooked. When buying rhubarb, look for long, firm, bright red stalks. For our favorite recipes, check out the selection below.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.