I should have known better. My cousin's seemingly casual invitation was too intent on success, the gleam in her eye a bit too bright. "Take a bite," she said, holding out the stalk of rhubarb.
She spoke as if she were postponing her own pleasure, as if her bite of the scarlet stalk could wait if it meant her own dear young cousin could be happy. The rhubarb looked tasty. The pale-green stalk looked like celery, but better, with brilliant red striations that caught the sunlight. The bottom knob of the stalk, where it had been pulled from the plant with a firm tug, appeared as polished as marble.
This knob was pink, as pink as the hollyhocks against my Grandma Torkelson's house. It was a shade of pink that, yet today, makes me smile. But it was the other end, where the great leaf had been lopped off by my beguiling cousin, that revealed the stalk's pale green interior. "Take a bite," she said again.
I suspect that we were not unobserved — that the grownups were looking out from the kitchen at the ancient drama being enacted. For surely, generation upon generation has tempted its younger members with the suggestion that biting into a stalk of rhubarb is a delight. I mean, my cousin wasn't that original. Nor was I when, in later summers, I would extend a stalk of rhubarb toward some unsuspecting cousin, friend, neighbor kid — whoever had not experienced the stop-action surprise of a bite.
To a child's fairly untested taste buds, rhubarb is a shock. The initial crunch is quickly replaced by the sensation of every pore in your mouth constricting in the face not so much of a taste that is sour — although your brain is screaming "Sour!" — as in the realization that spitting out the rhubarb risks releasing even more of its barbarity and that, while ridding yourself of this morsel now is more important than anything you've ever done, the specter of tasting more rhubarb, even on its way out, is akin to realizing that someone's nails are only halfway down the blackboard.
In short, this drama is great good fun for the profferers of rhubarb and an unforgettable experience for those who, against all of their instincts, finally take a bite.
The good news is that we know now that kids' taste buds are especially sensitive to bitter or sour flavors and that maturity brings the joy of realizing that rhubarb is one of the great delights of horticulture — although even that took several centuries to discover.
Rhubarb's first primary use was not as food but as medicine in China and Tibet, with records dating back to 2700 B.C. Its eventual appearance in European countries was due to its medicinal properties, but cooks also were intrigued enough by its tart flavor that they began growing it around 1600. Trade routes continued to shrink the globe, and by the late 1700s imported sugar became plentiful and affordable, which pretty much lit the fuse on rhubarb's becoming more commonly referred to as "pie plant."
While we tend to think of it as a fruit, rhubarb actually is a vegetable, which helps move our brains in the direction of using it in more savory dishes, such as a Yorkshire-style pudding side dish, or in a kale salad. Nor is it necessary that rhubarb desserts rely on strawberries. Trust me. It's far more interesting to pair its tart flavor with tropical mangoes, chewy figs, fresh raspberries or ripe bananas.
Or, you can follow one of the simplest recipes ever devised: Take one small bowl of sugar into the garden. Pull a stalk of rhubarb from the plant. Lop off the leaf. Dip one end of the stalk into the sugar. Take a bite. Continue dipping as desired. Serves 1.