Rhubarb Renaissance

Many moons ago, my good friend Joanna was living just over Grand Ave from me in a nice little brick fourplex. The back yard had this incredible shrub rose, one that no doubt had been planted in the 20s, and was now seeking total yard domination. The landlords decided to rip it out, because they were jerks. Under it was a rhubarb plant, a plant that had managed to thrive under a rapacious rose for a hundred years, and also had an eye towards world domination itself. I got a call from Joanna: you have to come save this rhubarb! You’re the only person I know with a yard! I duly went over with garbage bags and a spade, and planted the poor thing back by the garbage cans. It doddled on for a couple of years until I built a box for it and moved it, at which point it went completely nuts. It flowered this year, which allowed me to cut the scariest bouquet ever. 

rhubarb flower bouquet
I’m gonna lay eggs in your thorax

The house I grew up in in South Minneapolis had a similar rhubarb plant, this big, almost black-leafed thing that Mum would occasionally cut stalks from to cook up into sauce that we ate over vanilla ice cream. I don’t remember one at Grandma Dory’s house, but I’m sure it was there somewhere, all of her pies and bars – always bars, in the 70s, never cookies. I used to filch the sugar bowl off the table and go out and eat stalks straight off the plant, dipped in sugar, the sour of the plant almost painful in that way that makes your eyelids flutter, and then the crystalline melt of the sugar. I absolutely love the shit out of rhubarb. I wrote Grandma Dory a letter once the plant got going; do you have any recipes for me? She responded by mailing me Rhubarb renaissance: A cookbook, publication date 1978, which is filled with her terse marginalia – “good” or “delicious” or, harder to parse, a + – and includes three yellowed newsprint squares pasted into the back leaf of recipes she clipped from the paper. 

Rhubarb renaissance: A cookbook is completely a product of its time, heavy on the sugar, specifying margarine for everything. (My rule is to halve the sugar in cookbooks from the 70s, and add more if it’s too sour. You can’t take it back out again.) There are lots of bars, and pork, and, adorably, a biggish section on punches. Why don’t we make punch anymore?! Observe:

Mock Pink Champagne

Rhubarb juice – 1 cup sweetened and chilled
Dry white wine – 2 cups, chilled
Ginger ale – 1 quart bottle, chilled.

For each glass, use four tablespoons rhubarb juice, stirred well into 1/4 cup wine. Fill glass with ginger ale. 

Isn’t that adorable??? There’s something called a California Waker-Upper that includes prune juice and powdered milkand I just…I’m not even sure I have words. There are a bunch of beet recipes too which are all very good, really pretty and rosy in addition to being good pairings taste wise. 

Anyway, the real thing I learned from this book is how to cut rhubarb for sauce or pie. I’d always just chopped the stalks lengthwise and then dumped them into the pan, with a little bit of water. Wrong. It goes stringy, as you might know, and holds its shape in a way that isn’t awesome. Also, adding water makes it too soupy. You have to split the stalks down the middle, and then again if they’re big enough, and then chop them. Then leave the chopped rhubarb for a half hour, and the stalks will weep the liquid you need to cook them, no water necessary. Adding sugar hastens the process. Well watered rhubarb won’t need any water added, and, probably a tablespoon or three of minute tapioca wouldn’t hurt to add to the mix to make it thicken (especially with pie.)

So then, many moons later, my husband gave me Rhubarb Renaissance as a birthday gift. Oh, I already have this! I said, and then pulled down the recipe book from Grandma Dory. Nope. Apparently rhubarb goes with renaissance in the titling world, and, as far as I can tell, Ann Saling and Kim Ode have no connection, nor do their cookbooks. Kim Ode writes for the local paper, and, judging from the beautifully vernacular recipe for rhubarb wine in the back that was written by a grandmother, is a Midwesterner born and raised. Both books talk about how rhubarb originates in Asia, and then migrated over to Europe, mostly as an herbal remedy and not as, you know, food, until the Scandinavians got ahold of it and enough sugar to start making pie. Which is how come rhubarb is still a sort of Midwestern, flyover state kind of plant. My Scandihoovian people, when they were getting tricked by the railroads to come to America, brought the plant with them. And here we are! Ta da!

Kim Ode’s renaissance focuses on the savory applications of the pie plant almost exclusively, a corrective to rhubarb’s long, staid marriage to the strawberry. I know several people – two cousins and the aforementioned Joanna – who are at war with this pairing. All rhubarb or nothing in pies! I ran a berry experiment one summer, pairing rhubarb with every berry I could think of other than the straw in pie, and blueberry-rhubarb is the most interesting, while rasp+rhu is probably the most crowd-pleasingly sweet. I have yet to try mulberries, but my crazy neighbors’ shrub is going gangbusters, so I might steal a pint and see what happens. Anything to keep the berries out of the birds, who then deposit livid mulberry crap all over my porch. Jerks.

Ode’s book has a lot of fish – shrimp in particular – and a whole lotta chutneys. My only complaint is much of the book is foodie fussy, with a fair number of items that if you’re in, say, Grand Marais, Minnesota might be hard to source. I’m lame enough that even if I were in town, I’m not sure I’d know where to get parchment paper for packets, but that could certainly be chalked up to it’s not you, it’s me. And I mentioned this before, but the rhubarb wine recipe, which is dodgy and personal and hard to follow the way family lore is dodgy and personal and hard to follow, is absolutely worth the price of admission for me. Recipes are notes to self, a quick notation of “good” or “cut these ingredients”, because you know how to think like yourself when you go to perform a familiar but half-forgotten task. “Test for sweetness and add sugar,” you say, cryptically, but you know what you meant. “+” you said, and you know what that meant too, but maybe your granddaughter didn’t. She’ll just have to cook until it comes clear.

Building and Cussing for the New Year!

Musical accompaniment for this review.

I got a call from my dad about a week before Christmas. He’d ordered my son, who is nine, a nerf flack jacket because that’s what the boy super wanted, but in the time it took for the paramilitary kiddie gear to get to the house, some fucking lunatic had shot up a school, killing kids my son’s age. While I don’t really think the nerf stuff correlates to violence or whatever, I can entirely respect Dad sending that stuff back and casting about for other options. What about the buildy craft stuff they tend to stock in the vestibule of the book store? Perfect; go for it.

So this is that! And, I can tell you, friends, that Build 3-D Wonders of the World is not aimed at 9-years olds at all. The writing is super bossy, telling you to read everything so you know what’s going to happen and can plan ahead. Shhhhriiiiiight. I realized there must be a whole nerd sub-stratum of people who cut and build paper buildings, like the train nerds or the people who paint D&D figurines all anal-like. In fact, Mr. Sock Puppet went off about how he once built this whole castle out of paper, with a little 3-D crest and everything, and that even though it wasn’t to scale with his little nerd D&D dolls, but he staged them around it anyway. Aww. 

Imma let Mr Puppet take over here:

And lemme tell you, those nerd skills came in handy, because there were two parts I had to cut out with my pocket knife (we’re not at home, you see, or I’d pull out my nerdxacto knife) because the die had just scored the pieces rather than punching them for us. There was swearing. This book should use a scale to tell you how difficult the model will be: one swear through ten swears. The Arc de Triomphe was easily a six-swear model, as at one point I recall saying that we should just spread glue over the whole model and let Satan sort it out. 

The book does tell you if a model is for beginners, intermediate (what? Punchers and folders?), and expert. What the book does not say is that these levels don’t reference any version of those words except in relative difficulty to each other. Beginner puncher/folders will have at least three or four swears on the Egypt scene, which is mostly already built for you once you punch it out anyway. I mean, how hard is it to make a triangle? But the Sphinx is not a toy.

What’s up, Mrs. Puppet?

paper Sphinx

This was just a few swears, really none at all. The trouble started when I decided to build the Great Wall of China. At one point, Mr. Puppet asked me how many towers were on the Great Wall, and I was like, fuck if I know. I’m not a godamn historian. He was like, no, in the model. Oh. There are three. 

me flipping off the paper Great Wall

All I can say about the Great Wall at this point is that crenelations can fuck themselves. 

Then we considered building the Colosseum, but hell naw. 

Obama meme saying Aw Hell Naw

So we ended up with the “intermediate” L’Arc de Triomphe. This is a multi-swear prospect, even though it’s as boxy as a Saab, because of the so-called cock rings that slip around the columns. So called by Mr. Puppet, of course. Observe: 

flipping the Le'Arc Le'bird

Mr. Puppet again: It did turn out pretty well, easily the best-looking of the models so far, cock rings and all. You can almost see the French pigeon shit on the roof. All it needs is a snarky French tour guide in a beret and a mime (not included). I learned that Napoleon put that thing up during his world tour. Two birds up!

Great Wall, Sphinx, and L'Arc all hanging together all papery.

So, this was super fun in a way, but it way that makes you swear. 

Happy New Year! 

me and Mr. Puppet