What’s the Rhubarb?

It has been decades since I’ve had any dish with rhubarb. Does this make me a bad person?

My general perception of the plant is that it’s high maintenance. Technically a vegetable, it’s treated like a fruit, added to various desserts and other sweetened concoctions. But unlike many fruits and veggies, it’s almost inedible in its raw state. It has to be broken down by some form of heat, and then have spices, typically sugar, added in order to lessen the inherent tartness of the stalk.

The other thing that everyone seems to know about rhubarb is that the leaves of the plant are poisonous, which is true. All parts of the rhubarb, including the stalks (also known as the petioles), contain the oxalatic acid which gives people the heebie jeebies. It’s also why I’ve always found the plant to be so interesting…so macabre.

But how poisonous is it? For a person about 145 pounds, 25 grams of pure oxalic acid are required to cause death. Rhubarb leaves are around 0.5% oxalic acid, so that that 145 lb person will need to eat around 11 lbs. of rhubarb leaves in order to get 25 grams of oxalic acid. However, excessive ingestion of leaves, even if they do not cause death, will make a person very, very sick.

Discovered over 2000 years ago and Chinese in origin, it has journeyed to the United States through the typical routes – trade with the West, where it was seen as a medicine for the great majority of its use and growth. It took the British to actually add it to our diet, and it is via the British that it ended up in the States and the pie on your plate.

The question now is what should I make for this ingredient? Pie is the obvious answer, and yes, I do plan on making at least one pie. But I’m thinking of other uses for it. It’s tartness could be used in a sauce for chicken, pork, or fish. Perhaps a soup. But it is primarily desserts that people associate with rhubarb. Perhaps I should simply stick with that.