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Rhubarb Reminiscences
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While casting about for a subject I read a journal entry by rhubarb, a reliable and frequent favorite of mine, and remembered that there was another time when I saw rhubarb almost every day.

Growing up, I lived next door to my grandparents who had rhubarb plants all over their yard -- along the back of the house and the edges of the garden, beside the compost heap and half hidden in the corners of the flower beds, behind the hollyhocks and sweet peas. I say they "had" the plants because you don't actually grow rhubarb. Rhubarb is an assertive plant. It grows itself, wherever it pleases. You're lucky if you can keep it in its place.

My grandparents lived off their backyard gardens during the Great Depression. They wasted nothing. Since the rhubarb was there it needed to be used. And the only way to use it all was to can it. I remember venturing into my grandmother's steamy kitchen, her table covered with jars and lids and blocks of paraffin, the huge pots on the stove filled with a bubbling pinkish mixture of water, sugar and rhubarb. "Mind you don't get near the stove. Mind you don't touch the jars," she'd warn me.

The shelves lining the walls of my grandparents's basement were filled with jars of jelly, pickles, peaches, corn -- anything that could be canned -- including rhubarb. Naturally, this bounty overflowed into my parents' house. So at practically every meal there appeared as a side dish a small bowl of canned rhubarb.

It didn't taste bad. Although no amount of sugar can ever quite banish the plant's inherent sourness. The consistency was something else again. Heavy and slimy and prone to slide off your spoon if you weren't careful. It needed to be gulped down rather than chewed because even boiled it remained stringy and chewing brought out the sourness.

When I was in an adventurous mood, I ate the stalks raw, dipped in sugar. Rhubarb's tough. I'd break it then twist and pull. It was always a struggle. I was amazed and a bit frightened by the machete-sized kitchen knife my grandmother used to hack the rosy stalks off right at the ground, and to remove the dark green leaves.

The leaves were poison, I was warned. ("Mind you don't eat the leave.") They contain Oxalic acid. You'd need to eat about eleven pounds to kill yourself --I've read -- but I suppose less could make you sick. I never tried the leaves. My friends and I did sometimes dare each other to eat the rhubarb raw, without any sugar. Raw rhubarb was the equivalent of those super mouth puckering candies kids revel in today.

I guess I saw rhubarb so often I got sick of it. Now I can't remember the last time I had any. I almost look forward to trying some again.

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