The rhubarb epiphany

Months before he died, the great poet Pablo Neruda finished his last work, The Book of Questions. Every sentence of every stanza of every poem is a question, and they combine the infinite springtime innocence of a child asking "Why is the sky blue?" with the weathered, grim, autumnal musings of a wise soul, who still can't quite comprehend it all.

Neruda also asks, "If all rivers are sweet, where does the sea get its salt?"

I was reminded of that question one soggy day at the Farmers Market, looking into the eyes of a bereaved friend while she held a bunch of radishes. She was somber and quiet, but her eyes were so clear they startled me.

Later, by the creek that runs through the ashes of a burned forest where I was hunting soggy morels in the rain, I thought of those eyes. Like her eyes, that creek was clear, blue and sweet, and this was a surprise. I expected the creek to be dark with ash.

In life, as in food, there is sweetness and saltiness, sourness and bitterness. More often than not, these opposing forces are present together in some combination, highlighting each other. At least one would hope so. For what good would be rhubarb without the counterbalance of sweetness?

Ah, rhubarb, that impossibly sour blessing of spring. In and of itself, it's too sour to be eaten unsweetened. But what really brings rhubarb to life is combining it with fruit.

This brings us to the sweet-and-sour riddle of the day: What kind of god, or goddess, or whatever decides these things, decided to put such a sharp barb in the rhubarb, by making it an early-season thing, and strawberries a mid-summer's thing, with apples ripening in the fall? If I were Pablo Neruda, I'd ask, "Does the rhubarb dream of strawberries, and wake up crying?"

Ashes, rain, rhubarb. This whirlwind of thoughts haunted me as I contemplated the fire at morel camp. Then my friend Margie sat down by the fire and began to make a cobbler out of fresh rhubarb and store-bought strawberries. The strawberries were flown in from a farm far away, and they were nothing like the strawberries from my garden that will be falling apart juicy in the coming weeks, just as the rhubarb will be growing stringy as it goes to seed.

Margie melted butter in the skillet. Next, she added the chopped opposing forces of strawberries and rhubarb and sprinkled them with sugar. Then she spread a layer of granola on top. After that another layer of strawberries and rhubarb, sprinkled with more sugar, and another layer of granola. She put a lid on the skillet and cooked it on the fire. Store-bought strawberries notwithstanding, it was magnificent. You can do the same thing with apples instead of strawberries, or apricots, or raspberries85 . Meanwhile, I realized something about all of this angst I've been sensing.

See, if you want to make a rhubarb cobbler like this, but with ingredients from your own garden, there is a way: Acquire rhubarb now and freeze it. When the strawberries are ripe, thaw the rhubarb and do what Margie did. Or, make strawberry-rhubarb pie. When the apples are ripe, thaw more rhubarb and make apple rhubarb crisp.

Combining the opposing forces of life into one cohesive package is the best we can do, like sitting in front of a hot fire with the cold wind at your back, or drinking a cold one in the parching sun. But since you can't always find it all at the same time, you need to take what's available today and squirrel it away-both physically and metaphysically. When you're cold and wet, it helps to think about how hot it will be soon, and make a point to remember that rain during the heat of summer. And when the sun comes out, don't spend it all in one place. Make hay, and save it for the cold and dark, when you'll need it.

If that's too esoteric for you, here's a real world counterpart. When the August peppers are bursting with summertime heat, pickle them in jars to keep you warm all winter. And when your bucket is full of morels plucked from the wet ashes, dry them, or sautE9 them in butter and freeze them. Save them however you can and use them in autumn, because few things are better with morels than wild game.

The morel of the story? Get it while you can. Save some for later, when you might need it the most, so you can eat apple/rhubarb cobbler by the fire as the autumn leaves are falling. And if you want to pickle some of that summertime heat, now is the time to prepare. Go get some young pepper starts at the garden store or the greenhouse, and put them in the ground now.

That's the rhubarb epiphany.







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