It’s getting warm in New England so this will be my last rhubarb post for this year. Sigh………
For my grand finale I thought I’d explore the word “rhubarb” as well as the plant.
A friend recently asked me whether rhubarb didn’t have more than one meaning. I did a little research—and was he ever right! When you’ve said rhubarb, you’ve said a mouthful in more ways than one.
Other foods may enjoy one or two definitions beyond their edible ones. A peach is a pretty girl, and something peachy is just swell. We blow a raspberry to show disrespect. And spinach can mean “humbug” as part of the phrase “gammon and spinach” or all by itself, as in the immortal Irving Berlin lyric, “I say it’s spinach and the hell with it!”
Rhubarb, however, has so much personality that its figurative uses almost rival its culinary ones.
First of all, of course, rhubarb is a reddish, stringy plant that originated in China. People either love or hate its strong, tart flavor. (I’m in the love camp, as you may have guessed!)
The genesis of the word “rhubarb” comes from its presence along the banks of the Volga River in Siberia; it is a combination of “Rha” (the Greek word for the Volga) and the word “barbarum,” or barbarian. (Obviously those who named the plant were less than enthusiastic about it. I don’t find it at all barbaric.)
Beyond its meaning as food, rhubarb is a theatrical phrase used by centuries of actors in crowd scenes. In Shakespeare’s day and beyond, extras onstage would intone “rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb” to simulate muttering, particularly angry muttering. I like to think that the peasants coming after the monster with torches in the classic film Frankenstein were using the word, although I have no proof of this.
Perhaps because of its slightly harsh syllables rhubarb also connotes a fight, usually a spirited one. In the mid-20th century the word became attached to baseball. It was used most famously by colorful sportscaster Red Barber to describe an altercation on the field—between teams, between players and umpires, or between players and fans. Barber called Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, “the rhubarb patch.” Apparently, the Dodgers had a strong, tart flavor.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rhubarb is sometimes used to mean “nonsense.” (Perhaps Irving Berlin should have written, “I say it’s RHUBARB and the hell with it!”)
The word also describes low-level aircraft strafing in time of war (at least it did during World War II). And it was used centuries ago as an adjective to mean bitter or tart. The OED also lists related words, including “rhubarber,” which refers to an actor milling around in a crowd scene.
If I haven’t provided enough meanings for the word for you, the Keene Sentinel provided several more in a 2000 article titled “The Hidden Life of Rhubarb.”
I asked its author, columnist John Fladd, where he got so many of his rhubarb uses, and he referred me to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Partridge must have been particularly inspired by rhubarb for he found many meanings for the word.
In the 19th century, Patridge wrote, the word was used vulgarly to refer to the genital region as in the expression (previously unfamiliar to me), “How’s your rhubarb coming up, Bill?”
It has also connoted a loan, a bill for payment, an advance on one’s wages and an area in the country (as a synonym for “the Sticks”). I guess I live in the Rhubarbs.
Finally, Fladd (citing Partridge) notes, “There is a Canadian phrase, ‘hitting the rhubarb,’ that means running one’s car off the road—‘You’d better not have another drink, Stanley, or you’ll hit the rhubarb.’”
Before I hit the rhubarb myself, I guess I should tuck a recipe into this post. It comes from my friend and editor at the West County Independent, Virginia Ray.
Ginny says, “I love the sweet/sourness of this crumble, which reminds me of picking rhubarb at my little farm in Pennsylvania, right from the garden, and transforming the bitterness to yummy-ness!”
Miss Ginny’s Rhubarb Crumble
2 pounds rhubarb (6 cups) cut into one-inch pieces
1/4 cup white or organic sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 cup flour
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) salted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the rhubarb in a buttered Pyrex pie dish (a stainless or ceramic dish may be substituted, but don’t use aluminum as it will react with the rhubarb’s acidity).
Sprinkle on the white/organic sugar and cinnamon. Sift the flour into a bowl. Add the butter and cut it in with knives or a pastry blender (your hands will do in a pinch). Add the brown sugar and mix again until crumbly.
Sprinkle this mixture evenly over the rhubarb, pressing down lightly. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown and crisp. Serves 6 to 8. This crumble freezes well.