Rhubarb follows me around. Maybe it’s in my Mommy genes. Mom grew rhubarb the width of her garden. I grew rhubarb in my Aurora garden until it dwindled from neglect. Rhubarb is in my Toronto garden – although not in its original place on the far side of the house. With the help of a neighbour, it got moved to the main garden area in the backyard – more sun and it’s in my face so I have to pay attention.
But except for the eating, what I do with my rhubarb is way different from what Mom did. One of her “processing tools” scared me so much I had to come up with something simpler and safer. As I write in my memoir:
The pressure cooker and a big blue-and-white speckled canning pot are steaming on the stove. Both contain water that would boil over in hell, but Mom is preparing to create her version of heaven – rhubarb and strawberry jam. I feel like the angel earning her wings as I hover nearby and try to catch her instructions drifting through the steam.
“Sharon, you have to boil the jars first,” she says. “Boil the water first and then carefully put the jars in the pot.” She covers the large pot and the pressure cooker.
I’m still standing away from the stovetop. The pressure cooker terrifies me. It appears like a miniature steam engine puffing away on the stove, and ready to blow up in my face any minute.
“Why isn’t the lid on tight?” I ask, pointing my finger at the pressure cooker, but still remaining a few feet away from it.
“That’s so the steam can get out and we’re boiling the jars to sterilize, not cook them.” She sees me staring at the lids and thick rubber circles lying on the tables. “Those are the ring bands that go around the neck of the jars to seal them.”
“Oh,” I reply.
Mom is using the standard Mason jars, but I remember she took her chances with reusing jars that once held mayonnaise and store-bought jam. After the regular washing in the sink, she gave them the boiled-in-the-pan treatment.
While a whole lot of boiling is going on, Mom opens the stairway door and retrieves a basket of strawberries and rhubarb from the steps. She carries it into the kitchen, dumps the fruit into the triangular-shaped colander in the sink, and runs water over it. She pulls out a couple of sharp knives from a drawer and goes to work on the ruby sticks. She hands me the paring knife to prepare the strawberries.
“Don’t slice them across the top like that. You’re missing some of the berry. Dig in with the tip of the knife and then put it under a bit and lift up the leaves. Here, Sharon, I’ll show you.”
I let her finish as chopping doesn’t appeal to me. Neither of us has any clue that in less than a decade, Mom’s fingers will be too curled and swollen from arthritis to chop the meat on her plate, let alone fruit for jams. All the plans and prayers in the world won’t change this from happening.
But right then, I’m waiting for those jars to sterilize so I can do the real cooking – the rhubarb and strawberries. When the jars have boiled to safety, Mom removes them and stands them up on the small kitchen counter by the sink. She pours the water into the sink and when the fruit is sliced, she dumps it into the speckled pot. I stir it with the wooden spoon. The steam rushes into my face and I don’t mind that it mixes with the summer heat in our non-air-conditioned kitchen. I can see the hard rhubarb slices dissolve to shreds; then the strawberries go soft. Mom mutters something about pectin to thicken and sugar to sweeten and both land in the pot. I pay no attention to amounts; just keep stirring round and round inside the pot.
“Is it ready yet, Mom?” I ask.
“Give it a few more minutes.”
More stirring. My right hand feels tired and my gastric juices reach high anticipation.
“It’s got to be ready now, Mom.”
“A few more minutes. Here, let me check if it’s sweet enough.” She takes a spoon from the drawer, scoops out some of the rhubarb strawberry mixture and slides a bit of it into her mouth. “Hmm. Needs a bit more sugar.”
“Let me try.”
“Wait; still needs sugar.” She pours more of the white stuff in, guides my hand in a fast stir, then says, “Ok.” She hands me a clean spoon from the drawer.
I dig the spoon deep down into the pot, but most of what I collect falls off. I open my mouth wide and shove in the spoonful and . . .
“Ouch. That’s hot.”
Of course, not too much makes it into the jars. Mom decides to make rhubarb and strawberry pie and some of the mixture in a jar in the fridge gets spread on toast in the morning for her, Dad and I to gobble down.
(Excerpted from You Can Go Home – Deconstructing the Demons, copyright 2011 Sharon Crawford)
Today I skip the pressure cooker and mason jars. I cut up the rhubarb, wash it, toss some in a pot, add a little water, put it on the stove (medium heat), and stir off and on until it is soft. Any extra I freeze raw in bags for winter’s use – just thaw, heat and eat . Or make rhubarb pie or crisp.
Anybody else have some rhubarb stories or recipes to share?
Only Child Writes