A Lesson in Rhubarb and Relationships

Where I grew up in southern Connecticut there was a rhubarb plant nestled in an old stone wall in our backyard. For as long as I can remember, it had always been there. My mother called it "wild" because we never paid much attention to it. It was not cared for or cultivated. But that's just how my mother wanted it, for she found it a waste of time trying to persuade my father to acquire a taste for the snappy stalks. In short, she gave up cooking rhubarb for her family even though she loved rhubarb's flavor.

It is customary in northern New England to give a new bride a "pie plant," the Yankee word for rhubarb. When I moved to Maine in the 1970s, I became the recipient of such a plant through matrimony.

My dilemma was not unlike my mother's. I also married a man with an "unacquired" taste for spring's first bounty, and I decided to try to bring him around to what I adored.

For all my effort, I learned a lot about taste. In short, it's difficult to change an unacquired one. We all have them. My youngest sister used to gag on a paltry serving of spring peas, and I could never understand why. For me, these sweet, green gems are the first buds of life in the world of legumes. Why, just looking at a steaming plateful of them laced with salt, butter, and pepper makes me drool. But for my sister, no. Thirty years later, she still gags on peas.

As for me, I can handle any vegetable except beets. Their pungent aroma brings tears to my eyes. The red medallions always remained on my plate to the bitter end. Many evenings, I was the last one at the dining-room table, trying to figure out how to disguise them. I vowed never to foist beets on my own children. And, no surprise, I never did.

But somehow I forgot my mother's lesson about rhubarb. Since I loved that tart and tangy plant, I figured I could get everyone, including my husband, to enjoy its robust flavor, too.

During our first years of marriage, Tom made small concessions to me and the plant, which led me to believe that there was hope.

As soon as the green, platter-sized leaves uncurled in early spring, scarlet horns would reveal themselves underneath. Within days, I'd cut the first tender stalks, flanking them with a flurry of spices and thick pastry. My husband indulged me by taking a small bite or two out of a 10-inch pie. I was certain that, with some gentle persuasion and a more engaging cuisine, he would enjoy rhubarb to the fullest, as I did. Why not? It was sooo good!

After a few years of marriage and one too many stringy cobblers, I discovered that Tom truly had an aversion to the plant. Trying to seduce him into more servings had settled into a perennial spring dispute. Was it worth it?

MY mother's lesson to let the rhubarb run wild didn't hit home until I was served a plateful of steaming beets at a dinner party one evening. Our hostess was prepared. She served many other vegetables as well, and I was relieved by this thoughtfulness. ("I'll pass on the beets, thank you.") I learned something.

The following spring, when I would have made rhubarb shortcake or rhubarb custard or rhubarb whatever, I offered my spouse a seasonal favorite in its place: strawberries. Something we could enjoy together.

And the rhubarb patch? In the last few years my pie-plants have hardly been discouraged. Pink shoots, as clear as jewels, appear every April and May looking for a saucepan or a pie dish. I clip a few. But I let most of them grow into tall bitter stalks until they bolt.

I may not be the world's best poker player, either, but when it comes to rhubarb and relationships, I know when to fold.

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