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Rhubarb and Lilacs

06/27/02 12:00AM By Edith Hunter
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(Host) Commentator Edith Hunter loves rhubarb, not only for it's distinctive taste and texture in pies, but also because it's a living link to the traditional New England homestead.

(Hunter) Why hasn't anyone written a poem in praise of rhubarb? Is it because rhubarb doesn't rhyme easily with anything? But no one even seems to have said anything notable about it. I looked up rhubarb in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and didn't find a single entry.

It deserves better than that. Along with lilacs, it marks the certain arrival of the growing-year on the New England homestead.

Wondering about the botany of rhubarb, I went to L. H. Bailey's classic Cyclopedia of American Horticulture. I learned that rhubarb, also called pieplant, came originally from Asia and Russia, a "useful ornamental plant, used mostly for pies and sauces, but wine is sometimes made from the juice."

From another source I learned that rhubarb came from beyond the Volga (Rha) River, "the land of the barbarians." An early Latin name was rheon barbaron. (I can see the word rhubarb there.). It has been enjoyed in Italy since the 17th century, and in America since the Revolutionary War.

When spring arrives, many old farm cellar holes come alive not only with blooming lilacs where the door yard stood, but with the bright red nobs of rhubarb pushing up close to where the barn stood. Vigorous rhubarb depends on heavy barnyard dressing, and the bed was traditionally near the barn.

I was thinking about lilacs and rhubarb as I sat on my side porch cutting it up to freeze for future pies. I had gone across the field, while the dew was still on the grass, and down the road to my absent neighbors' to cut the rhubarb. (I already had permission.)

The lilac bushes still stand in the dooryard of the old farmhouse. Built before 1800, it had been an inn. In 1815 it was bought by early settler John Warren, who needed a larger home for his eight children. The inn was remodeled, and for five generations functioned as Maple Grove Farm.

In 1962 the farm was sold out of the family, and has been owned by a series of "summer people" ever since. The wonderful barns were torn down, and the old house remodeled yet again.

No one told the lilacs and the rhubarb, and they continue to bloom. As I lopped off the poisonous leaves, I took one stalk to chew - how different the sour taste and crunchy texture from the sweet, slippery sauce.

As I worked. I admired the grand view of the Black River Valley off to the west. I thought of the generations of farm wives who must have stood where I was standing, cutting rhubarb. No doubt many of their pies were taken up the road to the Meeting House for potluck suppers, even as mine will be.

This is Edith Hunter on the Center Road.

Writer and historian Edith Hunter lives in Weathersfield Center, Vermont.
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