In May 2011, after four years of life on McNutt's Island, we moved to Montreal. This blog remains, though, as a (sort of) daily record of our time on the island, and a winding path for anyone who would like to meander about among its magical places. For additional perspectives and insights I recommend Greg's book, Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (2010), and my Bowl of Light (2012). I'll continue to post once in a while. If you do want to read this blog, one option would be to begin at the beginning of it (which is, as we all know, in blog-world, at the end), and read forward, concluding with the most recent entry. It's a journal, really, so it does makes more sense if you read it that way. But, you know, read it any way you like.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The history of rhubarb

When we first came to this place we discovered a forlorn little clump of rhubarb. It was scruffy and choked with weeds, emerging along the edge of the ghostly vegetable garden, among the daffodils and June lilies. It was the remnants of the Old Fellers' rhubarb, going back, we guessed, a hundred years or so. It was the sort of thing you wanted to look away from. But there it was, still coming up, even though it had been years since anyone had laid eyes on it. You had to admire its fortitude. But we could not pay any attention to something as slight as rhubarb during those first months when we were so anxious about our old leaky house and the coming winter.    

Last spring we still had not yet turned to restoring the garden. But we watched as the rhubarb began to appear again, between the return of the White-throated Sparrow and the birth of the new lambs. Greg was a big fan of rhubarb. It was a taste of his New England roots. And now it seemed that in moving to the island we had lucked into a rhubarb heaven. Skipper's father, the island’s lighthouse keeper for so many years, had been a serious grower of rhubarb. He swore by the application of ash. Captain Van had died, but his rhubarb patches continued to flourish each year behind his house on the mainland, in Gunning Cove, where he had retired.     

One day Skipper brought us a big bag full of the long red stems, huge green leaves flopping.  Greg searched his cookbooks and announced that only in my old Farm Journal cookbook could he find a recipe he liked, for rhubarb cobbler. It was well received among our adult neighbours, but too tart for the kids.  Some of the Van Buskirk extended family were fond of making rhubarb juice from the stalks, boiling them down to a concentrate to which they could add other ingredients. It seemed a practical and delicious use of so much rhubarb. But Greg’s commitment to cobbler was unyielding. 

More and more rhubarb appeared at our kitchen door, mostly with Skipper. Then Charlie’s wife Queenie sent over some rhubarb from her own patch, telling Greg that now he would see that the rhubarb from the hamlet of Churchover, two miles up the road, was much better than Gunning Cove rhubarb.  

Last summer we finally returned the old vegetable garden to a semblance of its former self. We dug up the Old Fellers' scraggly rhubarb and replanted it in its new bed. In the fall we dug up a big clump from Queenie's garden in Churchover and added that too.    

The other day I went out and cut the first of our rhubarb. We got enough for Greg to make a rhubarb pudding cake that's sort of like strawberry shortcake. Delicious.  

There was a time when rhubarb was the anticipated first fruit of spring after a long dreary season of mud and turnips and old potatoes.  And it was more than just the rhubarb itself, as wonderful as it was.  Its arrival contained the promise of strawberries, and after that raspberries and gooseberries and currants and blueberries, and then apples and pears and cranberries and deep purple concord grapes -- all from right where you lived, your own garden or your orchard, or from someplace nearby that you knew as well as you knew your own. For us, that time has come again. 

Rhubarb Pudding Cake
 (Farm Journal's Country Cookbook, Doubleday & Co, Inc, New York, 1972, p. 335)

Serve in dessert bowls. Pass a pitcher of cream to pour over

4 c. diced fresh rhubarb
1 c. sugar
3/4 c. water
1/4 c. shorterning
1/2 c. sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 c. sifted flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. milk

Cook rhubarb, 1 c. sugar and water until rhubarb is tender; keep hot. Cream shortenng and 1/2 c. sugar; beat in egg and vanilla. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt; add alternately with milk to creamed mixture. Pour batter into greased 9" square pan. Spoon hot rhubarb sauce over batter. Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees) 40 minutes. Makes 9 servings. 

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