We apparently inherited the mother of all rhubarb gardens. When we first moved to the farm, I would walk past it, eye the tall red-tinged stalks with guilt and mentally add weeding and harvesting it to my list of things to do.
Visitors weren’t allowed to leave without taking some with them–it was growing so fast that these sporadic gifts made no debt in its production–and I cringe now when I think of how one such person simply whipped out a knife and cut off several stalks (that’s NOT how you’re supposed to pick rhubarb because it leaves the plants open to infection. You’re supposed to grasp firmly at the base of the stalk and twist it off. At the time, I didn’t know any better).
I’ve never been a fruit pie fan. My philosophy was if a dessert didn’t have chocolate in it, it wasn’t worth eating.
On San Juan island in the summer, rhubarb is in high demand. The former owners of the farm told me about two bakeries who used to buy it from them, so I called them both and tentatively offered to sell them some. I wasn’t prepared for their enthusiastic response, like I was parting with something precious. And so the orders began to roll in, 20 pounds here, 10 pounds there.
After much Googling about the care of a rhubarb garden, ours really began to flourish. I twisted instead of cut, diligently pulled out any weeds that tried to crowd the plants and watered it every night.
One Saturday morning at the San Juan Island Farmer’s Market, I hovered near the booth for Cafe Demeter, a fabulous bakery. Pam, one of the owners, an always-smiling woman who moves with the quickness of a hummingbird, was our biggest rhubarb customer. On this particular day, as someone bought a pie, I overheard her husband, Bill, telling the woman it was made “with local rhubarb.”
Excited, I hurried over to Matt and pointed out the booth, with its pies, to him.
“Hey, that’s our rhubarb!” I said, feeling a sense of pride. Another woman nearby overheard me.
“How do you get your rhubarb garden to produce?” she asked. “Mine won’t.”
“You have to baby it a little,” I told her, and she frowned at me.
“How do you ‘baby it’?” she asked, a little more sharply than hopefully she meant to.
“Keep it weeded and water it a lot. Rhubarb loves water,” I told her, and she nodded.
After that, every time we went to the Farmer’s Market, I would linger near Cafe Demeter’s booth just to watch people buy pies made with our rhubarb. I’ve never grown anything in my life, and it gave me a little thrill every time. And then Bill asked me if we had a name for our farm, and I told him yes, it’s Red Roof Acres.
“From now on instead of just calling it local rhubarb, I’ll say it’s from Red Roof Acres,” he said, and I smiled at him in gratitude.
But I had still never even tried it. From what I understood, rhubarb is rather bitter, so the idea didn’t appeal to me.
And then Steve, the owner of the fantastic The Place Restaurant & Bar next to the marina in Friday Harbor, asked his wife to drop me off a piece of rhubarb pie when she stopped at the farm to buy ten pounds.
Matt was out of town, so I decided to just try a bite and save the rest for him. I dug into the edge of the pie with a fork and put the bite in my mouth…and then another. And then another. It tasted tart, tangy and sweet, all at the same time, like a sassier version of a strawberry. It was immedately addictive.
Reeling myself in, I grabbed my cell phone and took a picture of the pie before it was all gone. I had to share this experience.
“Rhubarb pie!!!” I said as I texted the picture of the mostly-eaten slice to Matt. “Who knew?!!”
He understood immediately.
“Right?!” he texted back.
It was only with the utmost of willpower I was able to save the rest of the piece for him. Since then, we have ordered several delicious rhubarb pies from Cafe Demeter, and I have done more than my share of eating them. A well-made rhubarb pie is a party in your mouth.