Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Poison Veggie-Fruit, Anyone?

When I was a kid, my mother kept an impressive garden. It ran along one side of our suburban Long Island home and was accessible from the backyard. Following the final frost of spring, and lasting straight through to the first frost of fall, you could be certain to find a variety of fruits and vegetables sprouting, blooming, and yielding their harvests.

Although she might plant something new every now and then, there were staples on which you could rely. Tomatoes, of course, and string beans grew well, supported by the chain-link fencing surrounding our yard. Raspberries were a summer favorite. Mom made the best raspberry jam that never seemed to set up properly and, consequently, served as an excellent topping for vanilla ice cream. The tiny closet under the basement staircase was a treasure trove of mason jars filled to the rim with freshly boiled and packed preserves.

But there was one item Mom always planted that I never appreciated, mostly because it both confused and frightened me. I speak of rhubarb. The name alone is enough to cause confusion. What the heck is a rhubarb? Why is that unnecessary "h" crammed into the name?

All other naturally-growing and farmed foods make sense to me. An apple looks like an apple. String beans look like string beans. Even pumpkins and squash look like how you would imagine things named pumpkin and squash looking.

But rhubarb looks nothing like what you might think it should because rhubarb is a silly name with no suggestive descriptive qualities whatsoever, and I suppose that's understandable once you get a good look at a rhubarb plant.

Rhubarb has reddish-purple stalks that sprout a foot into the air like diseased celery and have such a tart flavor that they require an entire field of sugar cane just to make them edible. At the top of the plant are mismatched, dark green leaves that make you wonder if some weirdo snuck into your garden during the night and stapled kale to the top of your diseased celery stalks as a prank. And Mom was always quick to warn us against the poisonous qualities of rhubarb leaves.

"Don't eat the leaves!" she would say, as if my brothers and I were secretly scheming to raid the garden for a quick treat of raw rhubarb. You have to wonder who was the first person to figure out you could eat a plant with the color scheme of a poisonous frog and the mouth-puckering uber-tartness of a thousand Granny Smith apples.

That isn't merely an old wive's tale, either. If you eat enough rhubarb leaves -- 11 pounds, to be more precise -- you could end up dead. Not that I expect any of you to suddenly get a hankering for 11 pounds of tart leaves, but be warned that if you cook the leaves in soda you will increase the poison's potency, meaning you might only need seven or eight pounds to make you drop dead. If only because it would be the most disgusting food you ever tasted, don't do it.

To confuse matters even more, the United States government has officially declared rhubarb a fruit, regardless of the fact it has a stalk like celery, leaves like salad, and bears absolutely no fruit. That's kind of like setting aside the fact the platypus is part mammal and part fowl and declaring it a member of the mollusk family just for poops and giggles.

Throughout the years since my childhood, I have learned to enjoy the flavors of many of the suspiciously healthy items at which I once turned up my nose. Cauliflower, carrots, broccoli and many more now cross my plate with no chance of not being eaten, but so far I have managed to keep rhubarb at a safe distance. I plan to keep it that way.

© 2013 Mark Feggeler

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