Can nature, food, and ancestry connect us?
My mother, born into a German household in southern Minnesota, grew up knowing and enjoying a plant called rhubarb. It is a cultivated plant in the genus Rheum in the family Polygonaceae. It is an herbaceous perennial growing from short, thick rhizomes. Upon further investigation, I discovered the precise origin of culinary rhubarb is unknown. The species, Rheum rhabarbarum (synonym, R. undulatum) and R. rhaponticum were grown in Europe before the 18th century and used for medicinal purposes. This species of rhubarb is related to yellow dock and curly dock ,which grow as non-native plants throughout our area in southwest Ohio. Today. it’s even being considered as a fruit “superfood.”
Getting back to my mother’s experience, delicious homemade strawberry rhubarb jam would grace her table at meals. I would dare say she and her sister Joyce probably assisted their mother every year to harvest, prepare and can this tart delicacy. It can be a pretty impressive plant at 2 ½ to 3 feet tall with stout stems and large, inedible leaves. I believe it may have been a plant that Germans brought to the U.S. when immigrating. Gardens were an important mainstay and a source of survival. My grandfather Herb always had a very large and productive garden at his modest home in southwestern Minnesota. Much of the fresh produce my mother and her sister knew came from that garden.
As food often connects people at family and community gatherings, I wonder how many people have memories of a special garden plant or native plant connected to their ancestry? Maybe you don’t even know it. As you think about your life and your ancestors, perhaps one comes to mind that you never really connected to your heritage. It would be interesting while conversing with new and old friends to mention the plant to see how many also share treasured memories.
It could be surprising to discover how connected we all are or could be through sharing our experiences even with a complete stranger. You might say, “Have you ever heard of rhubarb?” You may even come away from the conversation with warm feelings of being linked to this person. You may even find a new recipe or way to experience this plant.
Even at 86, my mom still has a twinkle in her eye when we talk about rhubarb pie and strawberry rhubarb jam.
Checking with my Aunt Joyce who lives in California, she found a rhubarb cake recipe from her mother that you might like to try. Connect and enjoy!
- Mix the following ingredients together:
- 1 ½ Cups brown sugar (My mother said she used ½ white sugar)
- ½ Cup shortening (She usually used Crisco)
- 1 Egg
- 1 Teaspoon vanilla
- Add the flour mixture alternately with milk
- 1 cup sweet or sour milk (She put vinegar in sweet milk to make it sour, but her recipe doesn’t say how much)
- Put the following two ingredients into the flour:
- 1 Teaspoon baking soda
- ½ Teaspoon salt
- 2 Cups flour
- Cut in 2 cups of rhubarb, cut into small pieces
- Put into a 9 x 13 inch greased pan
- My mother’s recipe didn’t include any baking instructions, but I would use 350 degrees Fahrenheit for roughly 45 minutes. Check for doneness and continue baking until done.
Nature Interpreter, Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve