The winner, and a rhubarb recipe.

Diana B. gets the Godiva and Amazon. Congratulations, Diana, and please respond to my e-mail so your treats can be sent.

Thanks to all who left comments. Maybe next time the random number generator will like you best of all.

Speaking of which: Be sure to check out this Friday’s giveaway, which is somewhat otherworldly.

Rhubarb in every yard

I recently attended a barbecue that was wryly dubbed “Grill, baby, grill!” by its hosts. As I was leaving they gave me a small sack of newly cut rhubarb. Alaskans are nuts about the stuff. In the old days, rhubarb was the first fresh food of the year. To the pioneers it must have tasted positively ambrosial after a winter of sourdough bread and boiled beans.

Modern-day sourdoughs can get all the fresh produce they want at Costco, yet they  maintain an ancestral fondness for this vegetable that masquerades as a fruit. Even people who don’t eat it grow it, probably because it takes no horticultural talent at all. Stick a rhubarb root into dry cat litter and by morning you’ll have enough stalks to bake a pie. (Stick it in used cat litter and you’ll have enough for two pies.)

I worked at the Anchorage Daily News for 17 years. Each spring I’d see rhubarb crisp or rhubarb pie parked at the newsroom coffeepot – and, often, extra stalks  just begging to be adopted.

When I mentioned my ’barb bonanza to another friend, she recounted a recipe that sounded so garish I simply had to try it.

A rhubarb rhevelation

Dice 4 cups of rhubarb and spread it in a greased 13-by-9 pan. Sprinkle a 3-ounce box of strawberry Jell-O evenly over the top. I used strawberry banana ’cause I’m just freaky like that. (And I bought the generic version ’cause I’m just frugal like that.)

Next, sprinkle on 1 cup of sugar. Because even Jell-O doesn’t have enough sucrose when the subject is rhubarb.

Stir up a yellow cake mix, pour it over the sugar drifts, and bake. The result: a rhubarb upside-down cake whose base color is truly startling. Not red, but a kind of radioactive deep pink, the color of the sweet-and-sour chicken in cheap buffets.

And damn, was it good. Indescribably good. Hate-myself-for-loving-it good.

My hostess, Linda B., also loved it. In fact, we both loved it way too much. After a couple of pieces we mutually agreed to donate the rest to the Daily News, where Linda still works. Apparently it was a big hit there, too, a real rhubarb rhevelation after years of pies and crisps.

Another friend has hinted at a rhubarb surplus, so I may do a second cake. Linda B. could always take the rest of it to work. If there’s any left, that is.

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  1. Oh, that recipe sounds fabulous!! On my first trip to Alaska (last August), we encountered so many rhubarb offerings, I was in heaven. Sadly, on my second trip (this past May), we didn’t se any. I think it was too early in the season.

  2. My grandma had the largest backyard garden in her little town and grew rhubarb every yr. Sadly I couldn’t appreciate her green thumb and all the rhubarb pies she made me. To say she was frugal is an understatement. Her garden virtually eliminated the need to buy any veggies or fruit, ever. Thanks for the post, I’ll have to try the rhubarb crisp and maybe even try to grow it.

  3. priskill

    Wow — “radioactive deep pink, the color of sweet and sour chicken in cheap buffets” — you sold me! And flipping cheap, to boot. Sounds like a candidate for vanilla ice cream . . .

  4. Coupon Ninja

    I might have to try this… I love it with strawberries. Now I need a social gathering to test this on!
    [I have lots of college aged friends who make good lab rats for this!]

    • Donna Freedman

      @Coupon Ninja: On the contrary — you should first make the cake and test it YOURSELF. After all, you don’t want to inflict anything on your guests that you haven’t tried personally… 😉

  5. Nicole

    That’s brilliant! My father-in-law has a similar recipe with canned cherries… the jello+rhubarb substitution is brilliant.

    I wonder if rhubarb grows in the South…

  6. Holy rhubarb, Batperson! That’s the damdest recipe I ever heard! What a great way to get rid of rhubarb.

    My mother loved the stuff. She said my great-uncle used to like it so much he would (hang onto your hat) eat it raw! That may explain why he died mysteriously one day…

    At any rate, she used to boil the stuff down with enough sugar to crystallize the Empire State Building. It still had a certain tartness to it.

  7. Donna Freedman

    @Priskill: I was thinking of the “Steel Magnolias” scene in which Dolly Parton’s character said she served a particular dessert “with ice cream, to cut the sweetness.”
    And cake mixes went on sale for a buck each this week. I really think I should treat my former co-workers to another radioactive dessert.

  8. Donna Freedman

    @Funny: One of my former editors would eat raw rhubarb at his desk. It made my teeth hurt to watch him.

  9. Got your postcard, Donna! That is one big fish. We could do a fish fry for my entire village on that one specimen.
    Hope you are enjoying your time.

  10. Donna Freedman

    @Nancy: The thing about the really big, “barn-door” halibut is that you get to SHOOT them before you bring them onto the boat. Now that, my friend, is SPORT.
    I’ve only gone halibut fishing once and I have to say that even my piddly little 35-pounder practically pulled my arm off as I tried to reel it in. I started getting asthma symptoms so the guy next to me had to help me get it up the last few feet and into the boat. Fresh halibut sure is tasty, though — worth the price of a couple puffs of my inhaler.
    Thanks for reading.

  11. priskill

    DF, you will be doing your former co-workers a solid — you are entering Mother Theresa territory. “Ice cream to cut the sweetness” — i can get behind that! And now i’m craving halibut . . .

    On a semi-serious note — isn’t part of rhubarb poisonous? The stalk maybe? I remember big leaves of it all over the place growing up and we avoided eating it just like the poisonous dog berries . . .Clearly, some of it is edible . . .

  12. Donna Freedman

    @Priskill: The stalk is edible but the leaves will make you sick.
    Of course, the stalk also makes some people sick. They say it’s rhubarb and they say the hell with it.

  13. priskill

    Thanks for the clarification, a la New Yorker!!

  14. Coupon Ninja

    But Donna, they are so USED to things like that. I will concoct something or find it on the internet or hear about it and decide to try it… they are forewarned and they still eat.
    And it has always turned out AWESOMELY. 😀

  15. Some of my fondest memories are of my aunt down in southeastern Kansas making rhubarb pie. I always loved it.

  16. Kelly McMillen

    Hey Donna! First of all, thank you for the post card! Enjoyed it very much. Cracked up at your correcting the “mooses” to moose! Good editing! I love rhubarb, and I was given a similar recipe for rhubarb upside down cake-but no jello. Sounds like that radioactive coloring will give my next cake the extra punch it was missing! My second son, as a KID (he’s 24 now) used to eat raw rhubarb right from my garden! He loved sour stuff. Raw lemon, sour balls, etc. The more sour the food the better. I remember the one time he offered me a sour ball, and I foolishly put it in my mouth. Oh, he laughed and laughed at my puckered up sour face, especially when the tears began to ooze out of my eyes. Couldn’t get the damn thing out of my mouth fast enough, but it didn’t matter. The damage was done. I was good natured about the whole thing, but inside I wanted to ground him until he was fifty! Thanks for posting and for the great recipe!

  17. FranticWoman

    I cant believe you posted about rhubarb. No one here I know eats it. I also have been to 20 food stores in 4 wks – not one has carried it, even though the 10 minute season was upon us. I mention it to everyone to keep a look out. I’m met with blank stares and a “What is that”? I need to move. Obviously.

    I’m jealous it is available where you are. Boohoo. Enjoy it since you can!

  18. FranticWoman

    Oh – and the big family recipe is Rhubarb Cobbler. My mother never had it until she visited her mother-in-law to be. One taste and she demanded to know what it was and how to make it. Over 45 years later…still *THE* recipe.

  19. Catseye

    Wow, that’s some recipe! Maybe I’ll try it with some fruit that’s available here in Arkansas. I’ve never had rhubarb, I don’t think it ever caught on in the south. Strange, since we grow everything else!

  20. Mary Lambert

    OMGeez! This brings back memories! I’m going to have to make that for my mother this summer….I think there’s still some growing in her back yard.

    When we were kids, instead of coming in the house for lunch (stop playing, what??!!) we would graze on whatever was growing in the yard…my dad’s fabulous garden, peaches, plums, cherries, rhubarb… That was the life!!

  21. Missed this when it first came out . . . rhubarb here in south Georgia is a precious and rare thing. Too hot to grow it, but I’ve found a few stalks in supermarkets and gotten people addicted to strawberry-rhubarb pie.

    • Donna Freedman

      No one had rhubarb where I grew up (South Jersey). Now I’m harvesting (and gleaning!) as much as I can, filling the freezer to make compote for my homemade yogurt. Rhubarb is my favorite add-in. Also found a recipe for a refrigerator rhubarb pickle that’s wonderful with cheese and crackers.


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