Photo by Judith Hausman
I walk past a rhubarb patch in (let’s call her) Mrs. Bloom’s yard nearly every day. Two years ago, I saw that while she is a wonderful gardener well into her 80s, Mrs. Bloom was not pulling her rhubarb. The gnarly flower stalk was unfurling and the tall, almost prehistoric, stalks were getting red, but it seemed to be going to waste.
One day, I fell into temptation. The gate to her lawn was open and her car was gone so here’s what I did: I stole some rhubarb.
I knew I should have asked her first, but I didn’t. I chopped and cooked the half dozen stalks with ginger and honey. Pretty soon, I was wracked with guilt. (Well, maybe not enough to keep me from loving that compote.)
Photo by Judith Hausman
But finally at our annual community picnic, I confessed to Mrs. Bloom that I had helped myself to her rhubarb. Of course, she laughed; she had just been chiding her grown son (“You never write, you never call. You never eat my rhubarb.”) for not eating it, and she was planning to pull out one of the big, proud plants. I never did stop back that year (more guilt) but I resolved to do so the next spring. This time, could I make her a pie in return? She waved me off. A pie was too much for her to eat alone, she said, but she’d take some tart, pale green jam instead.
This year, she had my jam jar ready to return to me. Mrs. Bloom’s rhubarb, basking in its sunny spot in the front of the garden, was ready before anyone else’s. I used it to make rhubarb compote at Rainbeau Ridge for the farm’s CSA. We cooked the first batch gently in orange juice and ginger and then after cooling it a little, sweetened it with local honey.
Next time, I’ll poach it in white wine with a real vanilla bean and nutmeg. These are the two palettes I like with rhubarb, which I can then swirl into yogurt or ice cream, top with granola or almonds, layer into a from-scratch or cheater pie shell over creamy, lightly sweetened goat cheese or vanilla custard. Some people like to eat it with roast pork or chicken as a sweet-tart relish, too.
There’s another part to the rhubarb story. Because I live in an older lake community, I knew people other than Mrs. Bloom had old-fashioned rhubarb patches, too, so I used our community e-bulletin board to e-broadcast a call to buy any rhubarb that was up and extra. I figured nobody would like to see the bright red, first fruit, with its poisonous elephant-ear leaves, go to waste. My neighbors were happy to give it to me and wouldn’t take a dime.
That’s part of what I love about my community: The early bounty of rhubarb and the good neighbors ready to share it.