I know about the rhubarb

By Daniel Dunkle | Jun 11, 2016

It's already started again for this summer.

Strangers knock on my door or walk up to me in the driveway. They approach carefully, slowly, sheepishly.

"I couldn't help noticing your rhubarb."

We bought this house in 2001 when Christine was pregnant with the boy who is now taller than she is, working the controls to a PlayStation 4 in his bedroom. Before, it was owned by an elderly couple who were generally just better people than we are. The wife maintained a massive, fruitful garden. At Halloween, the neighborhood kids wore reversible costumes so they could hit the house twice trick-or-treating to get homemade candy apples.

And right up on the road is a massive patch of rhubarb.

I like our 19th century house and its lawn. It reminds me a bit of the home I grew up in in Hampden. We have an apple tree, like I did growing up. We have a willow tree, too, and the rhubarb.

My Dad used to grow it in our backyard. I remember the strawberry-rhubarb pies Mom would make. She also made this super tart hash of the stuff that we would spread on toast or English muffins. That would wake you up in the morning, boyo, if not turn your head right inside out!

While I ate it when it was prepared, I was always a little distrustful of the stuff in its raw form, growing up out of the earth. It has these long red stalks and big wrinkled leaves. It always looks out of place with the surrounding lawn, and would look more at home on one of those planets they were always stopping off at on "Lost in Space."

I always remember Dad saying, "Don't eat the leaves, they're poisonous." Then when he saw my startled look, he backpedaled, knowing my paranoia well: "But that's no reason to be afraid of eating the stalks."

It was all well and good when I had him to harvest them and Mom to cook them. But when we moved into the house in Rockland, Christine showed no interest in the rhubarb, meaning it was up to me to brave the toxic leaves and make the harvest.

For a number of years, I just ignored the stuff.

And that brought me into conflict with those who covet my rhubarb. Every year, I have these conversations with people.

"Sure, take some," I say.

They are grateful, but there's always a little reproach in there.

"Jeez, it looks like you don't even use it!" they say.

"Oh, I do," I say. Or, "I was getting around to it." They stare at me and I continue. "You know, I'm at work a lot, so I don't get around to it."

"It's going to seed there," they say.

Let me tell you something about rhubarb. It's always going to seed! I know what's happening with it! One day, you've got nothing but dirt and dead sticks from last year's seed stalks. The next you've got leaves along the ground. Another day and you have a massive jungle of the stuff. And then, about the time you think, "I ought to go get some of that rhubarb," these towers topped with seeds have shown up along with someone who "just happened to be passing through the neighborhood," who needs to scold me for letting the rhubarb go to seed.

Sometimes it's like they think I have failed to notice the rhubarb. Like I'm going to follow them out into my yard where they will point and I'll slap my hands to the sides of my face like Macaulay Culkin in shock. "Christine, get out here! We've got rhubarb? Can you believe it?"

But the problem isn't other people. That's what arriving at the age of 43 has taught me. My problem is me. Why do I go on the defensive? Why do I feel compelled to explain to a total stranger why I'm not taking advantage of something growing on my lawn? I can use it if I want or not. It's mine.

But, inevitably, these interactions leave me feeling awkward and vaguely guilty.

Sometimes people ask to borrow a knife so they can cut some of my rhubarb. One time, a guy took some and then brought me a little jar of strawberry-rhubarb jam he made with it. And it was good too! That was the best deal for me.

Now, about once or twice a year, I bring some of the stuff in and we make a crisp or two. Christine is never very enthusiastic about it. "There's no chocolate," she says, and that is the ultimate sin for any dessert.

For me, it reminds me of home, of childhood, so it's like "The Dark Crystal" in that way. (This is the point in the column where my 15-year-old son shakes his head and dismisses me as a "Gen-X-er."). That said, if the stuff is so great, how come you always have to cut it with something else? You can have a strawberry pie without the rhubarb, but are you really going to do it the other way around?

The other day a buddy from work was giving me a ride home. He'd never been by my house before, so I wanted to impress him. I said, "And I have the most prized rhubarb patch in all of Rockland."

He just shook his head and said, "Rhubarb's a weed, dude."

I can't win.

Daniel Dunkle is news director for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, and two children. Check out his blog, Scattered Clippings, at knox.villagesoup.com and email him at ddunkle@villagesoup.com.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jun 15, 2016 16:08

As a young bride moving to Hope I inherited a Rhubarb patch when we bought our first farm. The older Grange ladies showed me how to make the best Rhubarb pie and I always took them to the Grange suppers where they were quickly eaten. They called my patch a Strawberry Rhubarb. Who knew, I was from Boston.

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