There's More To Rhubarb Than Meets The Eye

Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with food writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl about the vegetable you thought you knew: Rhubarb. From a 17th century geopolitical bargaining chip, to a 21st century cocktail ingredient, there's a lot more to the story than pies.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you're a regular public radio listener, this may sound a bit familiar.

GARRISON KEILLOR, HOST:

This portion of our show is brought to you by Beopareebopp Rhubarb Pie and Beopareebopp Frozen Pie Filling.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's Garrison Keillor on "A Prairie Home Companion," advertising a fictional and deeply Lake Wobegonian dessert.

KEILLOR: (Singing) Mama's little baby loves rhubarb, rhubarb, Beebopareebop Rhubarb Pie. Mama's little baby...

MARTIN: It's a parody of an old timey radio ad. And all that foot stomping is sort of a transparent attempt to jazz up what's meant to seem irremediably plain...

KEILLOR: Rhubarb pie.

MARTIN: .Rhubarb pie.

(APPLAUSE)

KEILLOR: Rhubarb, it's the secret...

MARTIN: It's kind of a bummer for rhubarb as a plant.

DARA MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: People don't really value it in a lot of ways. It's very humble to have rhubarb pie. It's the thing you do that you don't pay any money for, so therefore it's not that valuable.

MARTIN: That's food writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl. She took to the pages of Saveur magazine to pay some respects to a vegetable that actually has quite a swashbuckling history.

GRUMDAHL: The story begins thousands of years ago before there was Tums or Rolaids. So for...

(LAUGHTER)

GRUMDAHL: For a really long time, rhubarb root - so the root of the plant that we all know - was dug up and ground up. And then, this was something that would fix all kinds of ailments. It would fix dysentery and constipation, and basically you name it - it was the all-purpose digestive curative. And it was grown in China. And China had a sort of monopoly on it.

MARTIN: And so, this becomes a hot commodity. Eventually it was a big trade item on the Silk Road to Europe, right?

GRUMDAHL: Yeah, on the Silk Road, we think of pearls and silk and satin and glamorous things like that. But one of the important things that came on the Silk Road was rhubarb.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Who knew?

GRUMDAHL: And it was controlled by the czars of Russia. You had to have a special permit. You were not allowed to bring in rhubarb unless you went through them. And then when China and Russian border wars erupted, the Chinese would withhold rhubarb from the Russians. It was a big deal.

MARTIN: So we've been talking about rhubarb as a medicine. This is the root parts of the plant. How did people start thinking about rhubarb as food, which is, I understand, is a different part of the plan that we actually eat?

GRUMDAHL: Yeah, the part of the plants that we eat is the stock or it's technically the petiole. It's the part that connects the least of the rest of the plant. We started eating that with the rise of the sugar plantation. It's a sour thing and so it wasn't until the 18th century that people could really eat rhubarb. It's sour.

MARTIN: So, Dara, I understand you're originally from New York. But you relocated to Minnesota. It seems like rhubarb does kind of represents your attachment to the Midwest. What is so quintessentially Midwestern about rhubarb?

GRUMDAHL: Oh, rhubarb is so humble. It grows like a weed. I mean, it's one of those plants that people hardly even by, it just sort of lives where ever. Neighbors give you a plank of it when you have a new house.

You know, I think that - I mean, to my generation, you know, I grew up in New York City and we were not allowed to go outside, and food did not particularly come from anywhere. And then you go anywhere and rhubarb is part of the fabric of the world. It's part of the landscape in Estonia. It's part of the landscape in Maine. It's certainly part of the landscape in Iowa. And it's a valuable thing to bring to the table.

MARTIN: OK. Well, I have to admit I grew up in Idaho. We had rhubarb in the backyard. But I am not a fan. I am not a fan, Dara. So in the spirit of convincing me to expand my thoughts about rhubarb, do you have a favorite rhubarb recipe that is particularly surprising and delicious?

GRUMDAHL: Oh, for rhubarb skeptics, I recommend just avoiding the texture of it. I like the texture of it. It's sort of like a celery or something.

MARTIN: Woody, yeah.

GRUMDAHL: But you could just freeze it, let it defrost and just kind of smash it with a fork and a liquid will come out - a pink, sour liquid. You can use this to make a rhubarb lemonade, which is just delicious. Or you can make a rhubarb lemon drop if you add a little vodka. So...

MARTIN: Now, there you go.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Now you're talking.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine. Her essay on rhubarb is in the latest issue of Saveur magazine. Hey, Dara, thanks so much.

GRUMDAHL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHUBARB PIE")

JOHN FOGARTY: (Singing) Rhubarb pie. Rhubarb pie. It might rain tomorrow, better get some before I die...

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHUBARB PIE")

FOGARTY: (Singing) Rhubarb pie. It might rain tomorrow, better get some before I die. Save your lemons, get 'em up in the tree. Save your peaches, they really don't get to me. Talk about something...

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