< Vegetables



A green vegetable used as a fruit, the rhubarb has long been known in the West as a medicinal plant—a laxative, purgative, and an astringent. Native to the banks of the Volga River and China, it came late to the European kitchen garden, becoming a fixture in the mid-18th century. Because of its penchant for cool climates, rhubarb was first widely cultivated in New England, having been introduced by several farmers securing seed from English agriculturists in the 1790s. Rhubarb pills gave way to pies. The quick growing vegetable’s reddish stalks had a distinctive tartness that when tempered with sugar had the refreshing quality of a fruit. Since it matured quickly in the Spring, it was available when no other fresh fruit or berry was. Hence it inspired a kind of regard that became cult-like in the nineteenth century. It was baked, stewed, or preserved, processed into compotes, pies, tarts, and jellies. For decades the approach to the vegetable proved constant. The cook pared the fibrous outer skin, sliced the stalks into small pieces, boiled or baked, with an admixture of sugar. In the last quarter of the 19th century it became one of the garden items most widely canned by family cooks. When prepared, rhubarb was not mixed with another ingredient until the twentieth century, when cooks began pairing the taste with one other item—onion for marmalade, peaches for preserves, raisins for pudding, strawberries for pies. The idea of playing upon the plant’s natural acidity by pickling it in vinegar, brine, or Citrus juice did not occur until the 20th century. Once the plant had become firmly established as a kitchen favorite in the United States—in the 1830s—gardeners began experimenting with methods for forcing its growth, to get it to the kitchen even earlier in the season. Seedsmen, too, began experimenting with the creation of varieties that were more heat tolerant, for southern cultivation. The American Gardener’s Calendar of 1806 argues for the widespread adoption by American farmers of the plant, yet reflects its author’s unfamiliarity with the plant by recommending it be grown from seed, rather than by splitting rhizomes, the standard method employed by European and Chinese cultivators.

Botanists recognized three species of rhubarb at the beginning of the 19th century: Rheum rhaponticum had blunt smooth leaves, reddish veins, and grooved stalks. Of Asian origin, it had been cultivated in England, primarily for medical applicatons, since 1573. Rheum hybridum, another Asian type, had large cordate light green leaves. Considered better tasting than its older cousin, it came into Europe in 1778, and became an object of culinary experiment in England shortly after the end of the 18th century, due to the exertions of J. Dickson. Rheum Palmatum came from Russia, and could immediately be distinguished from other kinds of rhubarb by its palmate leaves. It was cultivated in England fro 1758 onward.

1. M’Mahon, American Gardener’s Calendar, p. 203.

2. “Rhubarb,” American Farmer 11, 10 (May 22, 1829).

Early Prolific    History

good for glass or outdoor culture

Tobolsk    History

early, good for forcing

Prince Albert    History

early, good for forcing

Linnaeus    History

large and tender; the popular market variety [1850’s]

Myatt’s Victoria    History

a large, choice and favorite variety. [1850’s]

New Emperor    History

Stalks green very large and of fine flavor.

Stewed Pie-Plant (Practical Housekeeping 1884)    History

Make a rich syrup by adding sugar to water in which long strips of orange peel have been boiled until tender, lay into it a single layer of pieces of pie-plant three inches long, and stew gently until clear. When done remove and cook another layer. This makes a handsome dessert-dish, ornamented with puff-paste cut in fanciful shapes. Use one orange to two and a half pounds of pie-plant.

Rhubarb Pudding (American Housewife Cook Book 1878)    History

Butter a pudding dish; cover the bottom with a layer of bread and butter, then put a layer of rhubarb, with plenty of sugar, (the rhubarb should be cut in small pieces and put in uncooked), next a layer of bread and butter, and so on, until the dish is full having the bread and butter on top; pour half a teacupful of water over the whole. Bake half an hour. To be eaten warm, not hot.

Rhubarb Jam (Cultivator & Country Gentleman 1866)    History

To each pound of the young stalks, pared and cut into short lengths, add an equal weight of good sugar in fine powder; mix them well together, and let them remain about a quarter of an hour, then turn them into a preserving jar; heat them gently till tender, then boil them rapidly, stirring them well for about half an hour. This jam will be of excellent flavor, and will serve well for open or laid tarts.

Rhubarb Jam or Jelly (Farmer’s Encyclopedia 1844)    History

A superior jam or jelly is thus made from the tender leaf-stalks of rhubarb, equal or superior to that from currants, and of excellent flavour. To one pound of the stalks, cut as for tarts, add one pound of loaf or brown sugar; boil till the ingredients acquire a proper consistence. Unground ginger and lemon peel added to the jelly have been found a decided improvement. Buck’s early scarlet rhubarb has a preference in point of colour, which is beautiful red; it is also of fine flavour, though not, perhaps superior in this respect to other varieties. Rhubarb will answer for jelly three months before the currant is ripe.

Rhubarb Preserve (Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts 1870)    History

To every six pounds of rhubarb add six pounds of sugar and a quarter of a pound of bruised ginger; the rhubarb to be cut into pieces two inches long and put into a stone jar, with the sugar in layers, till the sugar is dissolved; take the juice or syrup and boil it with the ginger for half an hour, then add the rhubarb and boil another half hour.

Spiced Rhubarb (Mrs. Owen’s Cook Book 1884)    History

Peel, spice, and weigh the rhubarb. Heat it slowly in a porcelain kettle without water. When the juice flows freely, put the kettle over direct heat, and boil for ½ hour. Dip out hal of the juice in an earthen vessel, and keep it hot. To the rhubarb add ½ pound sugar (brown will answer), 1 teaspoon cloves, and 2 of cinnamon to each pound rhubarb. Mix thoroughly, add some of the juice if it seems too thick. It does not need to be as thick as jam. Simmer 15 minutes; seal up hot.

Pie-Plant Charlotte (The Successful Housekeeper 1882)    History

Wash and cut the pie-plant into small pieces, cover the bottom of a pudding dish with a layer of pie-plant and sugar, then a layer of bread crumbs and bits of butter, or thin slices of bread nicely buttered, and so on until the dish is full. Bake three-quarters of an hour in a moderate oven. Allow a pound of sugar to a pound of fruit. If preferred, turn over the charlotte a boiled custard when ready for the table

Pie Plant Pie (Home Cook Book 1877)    History

One cup of stewed pie plant, one cup of sugar, one tablespoon of flour, yolk of one egg; flavour with lemon; beat all together thoroughly. Don’t use pie plant too hot for fear it will cook the egg. Bake with just an under crust, and use white of an egg for frosting.

Rhubarb Pies (American Housewife 1844)    History

Take the tender stalks of the rhubarb, strip off the skin, and cut the stalks into thin slices. Line deep plates with pie crust, then put in the rhubarb, with a thick layer of sugar to each layer of rhubarb—a little grated lemon peel improves the pie. Cover the pies with a thick crust—press it down tight round the edge of the plate, and prick the crust with a fork, so that the crust will not burst while bakig, and let out the juices of the pie. Rhubarb pies should be baked about an hour, in a slow over—it will not do to bake them quick. Some cooks stew the rhubarb before making it into pies, but it is not so good as when used without stewing.

Rhubarb Tart (Peterson’s Magazine 1855)    History

Cut the stalks in lengths of four or five inches, and take off the thin skin. If you have a hot plate or hearth, lay the piece in a dish, and pour over them a thin syrup of sugar and water; cover with another dish, and let it simmer very slowly for an hour; or simmer in a block-tin sauce-pan. When cold, make into a tart, as codlin. When tender, it will be sufficient to bake the crust. Or, pare the stalks as above, cut them into pieces about an inch long; put them into a basin, and sprinkle over and between them a little fine sugar. For a quart basin heaped, take a pound of common lump-sugar; boil it in nearly half a pinto of water to a think suryp: when skimmed, put the rhubarb into it, and as it simmers shake the pan often over the fire: simmer it gently until it greens, then take it off. When cold, lay it in the tart-dish, with only as much syrup as will make it very moist. Put a light crust over it; and when it is baked, the tart will be done. Quarter the crust, and fiss the dish with custard or cream

Rhubarb Wine (Cultivator & Country Gentleman 1866)    History

To every pound of bruised green stalks, put a quart of spring water; let it stand three days, stirring it twice a day; then press it and strain it through a sieve, and to every gallon of liquor put two and a half or three pounds of good loaf sugar; barrel it, and to every five gallons add a bottle of white brandy; hang a little isinglass in the cask, suspended by a string, and stop it closely; in six months, if the sweetness be sufficiently off, bottle it for use, otherwise let it stand in the cask somewhat longer.

Rhubarb Vinegar (Godey’s Lady’s Magazine 1876)    History

Pick the stalks, chop them fine, and drain off the juice; to every quart of the juice allow three of water and one pound of sugar; add the mother from vinegar, and put the whole in a clean cask; set in a warm place until soured.