By Jill Pertler
For as long as I can remember, I've been in love with my rhubarb.
It's a one-sided relationship, to be sure. If there can be such a thing as a relationship with a garden plant.
It may sound counterintuitive, having a soft spot in one's heart for a fruit that can't even be described as sweet (nor return my affections for that matter), but my devotion isn't for the rhubarb, per se. It's what the rhubarb represents.
It starts with humble beginnings, when the rhubarb emerges from the soil in the spring, looking more like an alien than a plant. Its curled leaves erupt from the ground like a gnarled hand. While not pretty, rhubarb enters the world thick and strong.
That's because rhubarb is a tough piece of produce. There's nothing tender about rhubarb. The large, heart-shaped leaves may connote visions of romance, but let's not forget they are poisonous. Beyond the leaves, the stalks are fibrous and stringy not juicy and soft like watermelon or strawberries. You have to work with your rhubarb in order to bring it to a sweetness and consistency considered worthy of dessert status.
Even so, rhubarb is a versatile vegetable (so versatile some might mistake it for a fruit). It is a welcome ingredient in everything from sauces and jams to breads and cakes. Its tartness provides a complimentary background to the sweet flavors of other fruits. Best of all, it can withstand winter temperatures that fall to double-digit negatives. It is extremely winter hardy.
Because of its culinary achievements and robust durability, rhubarb, in general, is worth my attention. But my very own rhubarb growing in my backyard deserves my love. The reason for this is simple: my rhubarb is old.
It has been with my family for generations. The plants came from my grandma's garden, originally, traveled to my mom's plot, and then, finally, to my own backyard. Something that's been around for nearly a century has earned a place in my family's hall of fame, not to mention our recipe books.
My grandma's stint with the rhubarb was finished long before mine began; yet I feel connected to her through our red stalks. I imagine her harvesting the plant decades ago on the farm. Her days were filled with hard work and her hands showed it. In old photographs, I can see them working hands that were thick, strong and gnarled. My grandma and her rhubarb I guess both were winter hardy and tough.
Not to mention versatile and resourceful. Generations ago, good folks like my grandma didn't have the luxury of superstores or the availability of produce sitting on grocery shelves year-round. She had to make do with what she had. In the early summer months, that meant cutting, cooking and canning the rhubarb so it would be available during the long winter to keep everyone healthy and hearty.
I'm not as winter hardy as my grandma was. She'd probably take one look at my hands and know they'd never last day working on a farm. Times change. Rhubarb does not. At least not in my experience.
My rhubarb has provided my family with the sustenance of its tart goodness for three generations. It is reliable, versatile and tasty. Something that's managed to be around for so long and proven itself winter hardy well, I can't think of anything sweeter.
Jill Pertler, award-winning syndicated columnist and author of "The Do-It-Yourselfer's Guide to Self-Syndication" is collecting fans on Facebook on her Slices of Life page. Rhubarb recipes will be posted later this week. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit her website at marketing-by-design.home.mchsi.com/.