Two Sides To Rhubarb


June 09, 1996|By ROB KASPER

I am fond of rhubarb, in pies and in prose.

I like dropping "a rhubarb" into a conversation as a way to describe a dispute. This usage got started in baseball, where a rhubarb is slang for a fight between two teams during a game. The image the word is supposed to evoke is of a welter of arms and legs, as tangled as the stalks in a bowl of stewed rhubarb.

Red Barber, the late Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster, generally gets credit for popularizing this use of rhubarb. But Barber said he lifted the term from a couple of Brooklyn sportswriters. One of the sportswriters, Tom Meany, said he, in turn, had purloined the term from a bartender who used it to tell him what the scene in his Brooklyn saloon looked like after a shooting. This colorful use of rhubarb has, it seems, a shady past.

A modern-day rhubarb need not be as gory-looking as the bright red vegetable it is named after. I came to this conclusion after consulting with Patrick Ercolano, author of a baseball dictionary, "Fungoes, Floaters and Fork Balls" (Prentice-Hall Inc., 1987).

A copy editor at The Sun and the keeper of the etymological rhubarb, Ercolano said you can have a rhubarb without any of the participants getting slugged or plugged. Verbal tangles will do. Nonetheless, he said, to qualify as rhubarb makers, the tanglers must be worked up, animated. Arms should be flailed. Caps crushed. Dirt kicked. Earl Weaver, the fiery former manager of the Baltimore Oriole was, we agreed, a rhubarb waiting to happen.

My favorite rhubarb dish is rhubarb and strawberry pie. Rhubarb shows up in so many pies that in some circles it is known as the pie plant. As popular as it is, though, rhubarb rarely makes a solo appearance in pie. Its frequent companion is strawberries, laced with sugar.

Rhubarb needs sweet company because its own tart flavor can make you grimace. The ancient Greeks called it "the vegetable of the barbarians." They were referring to those rough foreigners who lived beyond the Volga (or Rha) River. To this day, many eaters west of the Volga remain wary of rhubarb.

Even deer, who will gnaw on almost anything, steer clear of rhubarb plants. That is what Wilbur Koerner of Jacksonsville told me. Koerner, 71, has been growing rhubarb and other vegetables for almost 50 years on his family's land in Baltimore County.

He is an accomplished gardener who regularly wins prizes for his produce at the Maryland State Fair in Timonium. But Koerner was quick to dismiss any notion that he is an expert. The real rhubarb grower in his clan, he said, was his late brother-in-law, Henry Miller, who used to grow "rows and rows of rhubarb and sell it at the Lexington and Northeast markets" in Baltimore.

"I'm just a hobby gardener," Koerner said during our phone conversation. As for rhubarb, he added, "I grow a couple of plants because it is easy."

In a simple, matter-of-fact style, Koerner described how he tends his rhubarb (he gets a fresh crop every spring). He made the tasks sound effortless. "It is a root plant. I put a couple of them in a hill. Then I cover them with compost in the winter. Then in the spring it is there. It is a cool-weather crop, good until the weather gets hot in late June or, some years, early July. Just like asparagus.

"It is one of the first crops out of the ground. This year it beat the asparagus by a week or more."

Rhubarb is a low-maintenance crop, he continued. Maybe you have to feed it a little fertilizer, 10-10-10. Every once in a while you do have to dig up the roots and thin the crop. He recalled that he last had to do that 30 years ago.

The rhubarb that he has grown all these years, his wife, Doris, cooked. "We like stewed rhubarb," he said, referring to a dish made by cooking cut-up rhubarb stalks in sugar water.

"I just put some on my corn fritters this morning," Koerner said. "I put it on cottage cheese."

Koerner and I talked a bit more, then I hung up. For the rest of the day all I could think about was the piece of rhubarb pie waiting for me at home. My wife had made the pie the night before, mixing 2 cups of cut-up rhubarb with 2 cups of strawberries that had been sitting in sugar. She added 4 tablespoons of flour and 1/3 cup more of sugar to the sweetened strawberry-rhubarb mixture. She put this in a pie crust made of butter and shortening, baked the pie at 425 for 10 minutes, then at 350 for 40 more minutes, until the top crust was crisp.

The pie came out of the oven golden brown and beckoning. When it cooled, it was cut and slices were topped with dollops of sweetened whipping cream. It had terrific flavor, landing in that sought-after range between too sweet and too tart. Even the kids liked it. They liked it a little too much.

When I got home from work I discovered my piece of pie, the last one, was missing. A rhubarb ensued.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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