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My book club was planning to read Barbara Kingsolver’s new book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” – the one about eating locally grown foods exclusively and only those in season – and so the discussion leader turns to me, and says, “And so Georgia, why don’t you make Kingsolver’s ‘Month of May’ recipe for Rhubarb Crisp on page 89 for our refreshments next month.”
I said yes, sure, no problem, I’d love to – even though I’ve never touched a rhubarb in my life, even though I’m mostly a counterfeit cook nowadays, scooting commercially prepared food into antique dishes and passing it off as homemade. In retrospect, I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I think I was thinking that whipping up a crisp from scratch might move me one degree closer to Barbara Kingsolver, who like me is a Kentucky-born writer, except her books make Oprah’s Book Club and the short list for the Pulitzer Prize – and I can only wish.
So I set out to find some rhubarb in the asphalt city I now call home. It soon became apparent to me why I’ve been able to successfully avoid rhubarb for six decades. This vegetable is in the Department of Agriculture’s witness protection program. It’s spotted from time to time, but it’s near impossible to catch up with it.
My first calls went out to several of my friends who are always going on about their abundant, non-pesticide gardens, and like Kingsolver, feed themselves from the land. Each in turn said that they couldn’t “get rhubarb to grow!” Hmmm.
Next, I checked the Farmers’ Market, a delightful traveling carnival of local food producers that encamps on city property here twice a week. Well, to be honest, I didn’t check it on Thursday because it was raining cats and dogs and my desire to win a Pulitzer Prize will only push me so far. But it’s open on Saturday, too, plenty enough time to pick up some rhubarb for Monday night’s to-do, I reasoned.
But on Saturday, I learned it had been a “cold, late spring” in Kentucky. Anywise, the Farmers’ Market didn’t have any rhubarb.
My next stop was the Kroger supermarket closest to my home. I was a little concerned that this was cheating on Kingsolver’s philosophy of buying locally grown foods in season. I strongly suspect that the mega-grocer imports its produce from any old locale that has not had a “cold, late spring.” But Kroger Inc. is headquartered in Cincinnati, just over the Ohio River from Kentucky, and I decided that gave it a hint of local aura.
“Nope,” was the terse response I got when I inquired if they had any rhubarb.
Undaunted, I checked with another Kroger in a trendier neighborhood. They were friendlier and told me they’d been ordering it every week for a month, but had yet to get any. They suggested I try yet another Kroger in an even trendier neighborhood, which I did.
“Had some. Sold it in a hour. Sorry.”
By now I was frantic. This was not going to edge me into conversation with the famous Barbara Kingsolver if she should ever drop in to visit her Old Kentucky Home.
And so I started phoning every food market in Lexington. Finally, I located two sources of rhubarb. One was a small organic food boutique on the other side of the city. They refused to verify that their rhubarb had been grown locally, but did verify that it was $3.99 lb. because, “you know” they said, “it’s organic.”
The second source – inexplicably – was a big box store a half mile from my house. No one actually said their rhubarb had been imported from China, but no one said it hadn’t been either. It was a $1.99 lb. Draw your own conclusions.
I faced a moral dilemma: organic and “possibly local,” versus cheaper and “possibly Chinese.” In the end, my Scottish genes won out, and I rationalized that driving across town to buy organic would leave a larger carbon footprint than running up to the big box store nearby. I bought all Big Box had – twelve stalks – and single-handedly wiped out half the rhubarb supply in Lexington.
In the end, my Rhubarb Crisp was not as crisp as I expected. To be honest, it was downright soggy. So I resorted to my old trick of using pretty dishes to distract guests from the food, and served up my un-crisp on my mother’s dessert plates.
Along the way, I learned some interesting facts about rhubarb that may be a conversation opener should Barbara Kingsolver and I ever get a chance to chat. I wonder if she knows, for example, that dramatists as far back as Shakespeare have evoked “a menacing crowd sound” by asking several people to stand close together and repeat the word “rhubarb” over and over. (Personally, I’m thinking all those “menacing” crowds may be what scared rhubarb into hiding.) In time, the word rhubarb was co-opted to describe baseball fans who directed “a menacing crowd sound” at the umpire. Finally, I learned that rhubarb is indigenous to Mongolia where it grew wild along the Rhubarb Road all the way to ancient Peking. That means that all the rhubarb that has ever been was originally exported from China!
I feel less guilty now about having bought my rhubarb at the Big Box.