Flash in the Pan 

The rhubarb epiphany

The Farmer’s Markets this spring have been like showers of cold tears.

While the weeks of rain have done a lot of good for the thirsty land, it’s caused major stress for the farmers who were ready to plant—rain or shine—but couldn’t work the soggy earth into beds. This is doubly ironic when you consider that although plants need water, farmers here in the arid West have long abandoned rain as a water-delivery system. Since the rains of summer are unreliable at best, and more often absent, Western farmers rely on the artifice of irrigation technology. And in springtime, without sun, rain is not only unnecessary, but it gets in the way of progress.

The farmers at the market looked weary and defeated. When I asked how they were doing, their answers ranged from “cold, wet, and miserable” to “Don’t rub it in.”

Meanwhile, determined shoppers bundled against a gusting cold that was more like autumn than spring. They bought tomato starts and green garlic and beefy spinach leaves. Everywhere there was rhubarb, that impossibly sour blessing of spring.

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?” (not in the book) with the weathered, grim, autumnal musings of a wise soul, who still can’t quite comprehend it all, asking, “If all rivers are sweet, where does the sea get its salt?”

I was reminded of that question one soggy day at the Farmer’s 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, I thought of those eyes. Like her eyes, that creek was clear, blue, and sweet.

In life, as in food, there is sweetness and saltiness, sourness and bitterness. More often than not, they are present together in some combination. At least one would hope so. For what good would rhubarb be without strawberries, or apples, to contribute their sweetness?

Meanwhile, what kind of god, or goddess, or whatever or whomever decides these things, decided to make rhubarb an early-season thing, and strawberries a mid-summer’s thing, with apples ripening in the fall? If I were Pablo Neruda, I would ask, “Does the rhubarb dream of strawberries, and wake up crying sweet tears?”

Ashes, rain, rhubarb. This grim whirlwind of thoughts haunted my attention as I sat by 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 about two weeks.

Margie melted butter in the skillet. Then she added the chopped opposing forces of strawberries and rhubarb and sprinkled them with sugar. Then she spread a layer of granola on top. Then another layer of strawberries and rhubarb, sprinkled with sugar, and another layer of granola. She put a lid on the skillet and cooked it on the fire until it was done. Store-bought strawberries notwithstanding, it was magnificent. And 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 for later. 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.

And when your bucket is full of morels plucked from the wet ashes, dry them, or sauté 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. Eat cobbler by the fire. That’s the rhubarb epiphany.


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