Heavenly Rhubarb Delight

Whipped rhubarb and gelatin.

Why rhubarb? It’s a fair question. Having been cultivated in China for thousands of years for medicinal purposes, it doesn’t strike me as an automatic candidate for American cuisine. Obviously, it’s immensely tart and a bit bitter; it has to be peeled and stewed to be palatable; and it has somewhat poisonous leaves (although unless you’re in the mood to eat a few pounds of them, mostly it’ll just make you sick to your stomach). What could possibly make this vegetable a candidate for inclusion in American cooking?

Two things: one, it’s nearly impossible to kill (the growing properties of rhubarb have been compared to weeds), and two, it’s among the first vegetables to sprout in the spring. When you’re ready to taste the fresh, bright flavors of spring, the first options you’ll have are rhubarb and fiddlehead ferns.

And nobody makes a fiddlehead fern pie. (I hope.)

Rhubarb by Jeremy Keith, on Flickr (CC license) (cropped)

Chinese medicinal uses for rhubarb focused primarily on the high fiber content of the stalks, functioning as a treatment for gastrointestinal problems, like an ancient Metamucil. (Modern medicine has looked a bit into the high quantity of polyphenols in the cooked stalks, although whether that’s of any actual value to our health is still an unanswered question. In either application, however, be aware that the varieties of rhubarb vary substantially in their structure and composition, and in the States, we’ve been focused on flavor.)

From China, rhubarb came to Europe much as tea did, and was an important and valuable commodity. Important enough that sixteen boxes on a seized ship was news for the April 1, 1707 edition of the Dublin Gazette:

Amsterdam, April 4. Letters from Leghorn say, that the Prince Eugene a Flushing Privateer, has brought into that Harbour a French Ship called the Duke of Burgundy, of 34 Guns and 130 men, Homeward Bound from Constantinople and Smyena to Marseilles. She was a Letter of mart* ship, and Fought 5 Hours, having 14 men Killed and 18 Wounded: The Zealander carried 36 guns and 180 men, and had 10 Killed and 15 Wounded; she is the Richest Ship which came from Marseilles this War, having on board 134 Bales of Silk, 154 Bales of Cotton, 88 Bales of Turkish Yarn, 50 of Wax, 317 of Wool, 339 Bags of Galls,** and 16 Boxes of Rhubarb, besides many other Rich Goods; her cargo is valued at 250,000 pieces of Eight.
*Letter of Mart: also letter of marque, what amounts to a quasi-sanctioned eye-for-an-eye policy between 17th and 18th century navies. A king would issue a letter of mart to authorize a person to become a privateer in order to take revenge for items lost in violation of the law of the seas.
**Galls: Growths on plants, especially oak trees in this context, used to make ink and dyes, especially for leather.

If you’re baffled by the context of this particular conflict, it helps to know that what was going on at this time was the War of the Spanish Succession. Triggered by the death of Charles II of Spain, the last in the Spanish Hapsburg line, two sets of world powers struggled for control of the Spanish empire (well, they called it a kingdom, but it was an empire), aligned under two potential heirs: the Bourbons in France and the Austrian Hapsburgs. Obviously, it was a bit more complicated than I can explain here, but the short version is that the British, the Dutch, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Austrians fought against the French, the Bavarians, and what was left of the Spanish monarchy.

The outcome was that the empire was divided, with Spain itself and its former North American possessions coming under French control while the rest of Spain’s European possessions went to Austria. Although a mixed result, it was something of a loss for England, which had hoped to use the conflict to eject France from its colony New France, which stretched from Louisiana to Quebec at the time. Obviously, that didn’t go quite to plan, but that’s another story.

Too long, didn’t read? It’s possible pirates liked rhubarb because it was fun to say.

In the 18th century, rhubarb was still primarily medicinal, because sugar production was so difficult that it was impractical to offset rhubarb’s monumentally tart flavor. (For an overview of sugar production in the 19th century, see the post for white cake from Lutz, Florida).

An early recipe for rhubarb appeared in 1829’s The Frugal Housewife by By Lydia Maria Francis Child (a woman we learned about in the post for cup cake from Lutz, Florida):

Rhubarb Stalks, or Persian Apple.

Rhubarb stalks, or the Persian-apple, is the earliest ingredient for pies, which the spring offers. The skin should be carefully stripped, and the stalks cut into small bits, and stewed very tender. These are dear pies, for they take an enormous quantity of sugar. Seasoned like apple pies. Gooseberries, currants, &c. are stewed, sweetened, and seasoned like apple-pies, in proportions suited to the sweetness of the fruit; there is no way to judge but by your own taste. Always remember it is more easy to add seasoning, than to diminish it.

Sort of curious, because I’ve heard peaches called “Persian apples,” but not rhubarb. Rhubarb would be a better candidate, though; it fits the cuisine’s love of sourness, sitting right there with pomegranates and yogurt.

From the box of F.T. from Great Bend, Kansas.

Heavenly Rhubarb Delight

2 c. cut up rhubarb
1/4 c. water
1/2 c. sugar
1 box strawberry gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
1 c. whipped cream

Chill until slightly [firm?]. Whip with mixer.

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