The history of rhubarb

To expand a little more about the name and history of this rambunctious vegetable known for its power to pucker lips. Rhubarb is from the family Polygonaceae (Buckwheat) and there are about twenty species of large herbaceous plants that belong to this genus.

The Treasury of Botany (Lindley), reports that the technical name of the genus (Rheum) circa is from Old French rubarbethat is said to be derived from Rha, the ancient name of the river Volga, on whose banks the plants grow. There were those who called it Rha Ponticum, and others Rheum or Rha-barbarum "of the bearded peoples," referring to all those rhubarb-eating, bearded (Latin:barbarus) tribes of northern Europe. Experts say the name is derivative of the Greek rheo meaning 'to flow', an allusion to the purgative properties of the root.

Mr. Waverly Root in Food shares additional historical references about the rhubarb plant.

    It “reached the Western world from China in the Roman era. Pliny mentions it in passing, as does Dioscorides. Ibn-el-Beithar wrote in the 13th century C.E. that rhubarb was common in Syria and had "like chard, it has fairly thick stalks." This suggests that he may have realized it as good to eat and which part was eaten.

    However, Europeans imported the root only as a medicinal, having in true barbaric European fashion eaten the leaves early on with disastrous results.

    Leonhard Ruuwolf saw it growing in Lebanon circa 1573-1575 C.E. It was growing in certain abbeys as a medicinal and planted by a certain Adolf Occo in 1570 bringing it into the lay garden. Lyte mentions it as growing in English herborist's gardens as a curiosity in 1578 C.E. Prosper Albinus grew it in the botanical gardens in Padua at the same time, describing and illustrating it in his herbal.

    It is not until the 18th century that we see reference to its use as food. And even into the 19th century, it was grown not so much for the edible stalks but rather, in the case of Rheum rhaponticum, for it's edible unopened flower heads. R. rhaponticum curiously is the plant grown by Occo, Albinus Gerard and Parkinson.”

It was the Chinese variety, Rheum palmatum, that first made its way into Europe. Marco Polo, who traveled all over China in the 15th century, was a big admirer of rhubarb and wrote at length about it in his journals. In addition to China and Tibet, several species are native to parts of Siberia, northern India and Nepal, some are found growing at altitudes as high as 14,000 feet! The following historical transcript comes from a department of Chinese studies at the University of Stockholm in Sweden:

    "You might be interested in the following from the (Chinese) 25 Dynastic Histories, ershiwu shi (the collected official histories of the imperial dynasties):

    • Rhubarb is given to the Wu emperor of the Liang dynasty (reign: 557-579) to cure his fever but only after warning him that rhubarb, being a most potent drug, must be taken with great moderation.
    • Rhubarb was transported to the throne as tributes from the southern parts of China during the Tang dynasty (618-907).
    • During the Song dynasty (960-1127) the rhubarb is taken in times of plague.
    • During the Yuan dynasty (1115-1234) a Christian sentenced to a hard punishment is pardoned after using previously collected rhubarb to heal some soldiers.
    • During the end of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) a Ming-general tries (in vain) to commit suicide by eating rhubarb medicine.
    • The Guangzong emperor (1620-1621) is miraculously cured from some severe illness he got after having had a joyful time with four "beautiful women" sent to him by a high official, cured with rhubarb, naturally.
    • 1759 the Qianlong emperor of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) forbids export of tea and rhubarb to the Russians after a border conflict in the north part of China.
    • In 1790 the same emperor declares that the Western countries will have to do without rhubarb.
    • In 1828 the Daoguang emperor sends out an edict to the effect that no more tea and rhubarb must now be sold to the "barbarians".
    • The imperial commissioner, Lin Zexu, who was sent to Canton in 1839 to put an end to the opium trade wrote a letter to Queen Victoria pointing to the "fact" that the foreign barbarians surely would die if they could not obtain tea and rhubarb from China and that the Queen for this reason should stop the wicked British merchants from trading with opium. Victoria seems never to have had the letter translated and read for her and when Lin Zexu later the same year wrote to the British merchants in Canton telling them that a stop to the rhubarb trade would mean the death for the pitiful foreigners, the pitiful foreigners responded with canon boats. Should maybe the Opium War really be called the Rhubarb War?”

Planting and cooking with rhubarb

The plant has large erect branching stems sometimes up to eight feet high. Stalks are more often than not red, sometimes green. Its large toxic leaves are heart shaped crinkly and sometimes lobed. The flowers are small, whitish or red and generally very abundant, in large loose panicles. The leaf stalks contain a tasty mixture of citric and malic acids. This is what gives rhubarb the taste akin to that of a tart apple. This succlent and sharp-tasting stalk is best cooked with elderberries strawberries or cherries.

For the pick of the crop wait until the second year and choose the oldest and thickest stems through July since the flavor declines in the late summer. To harvest break them off at the base so that the end has a spoon shape to it. One expert recommends breaking because cutting causes rotting. Leave at least half of the plant each year. The tops will die back during the winter. Some people deep-fry the flowers but they are typically snipped off to improve the quality of the stem. If you purchase rhubarb at the grocery store or Farmer's Market look for firm, full stalks, without bruises or blemishes which let the juice to escape at the wound. It will keep in the refrigerator crisper for a few days, though it softens quickly and it may be cut in sections and frozen.

An early spring food, its thick, fibrous stalks stewed and sweetened are good for creating edible delights from jam, preserves and compotes to wines and pie. While 4,500 years ago, rhubarb was known for its curative powers in Asia and southern Russia, it wasn’t until the 18th century that it was used in cooking and in England rhubarb didn't emerge as a food item until the early 19th century. Today it is more popular in Europe than North America, and most of the cultivated varieties are difficult to acquire in the United States. For all its medicinal and ornate characteristics, rhubarb has been grown in America chiefly for its taste. Introduced into New England colonies between 1790 and 1800, the robust plant endeared itself to the early Colonists. Early records of rhubarb in America identify an unnamed Maine gardener as having obtained seed or rootstock from Europe sometime between 1790-1800. He introduced it to growers in Massachusetts where its popularity spread and by 1822 it was sold in produce markets.

Rheum rhabarbarum, also known as Rheum rhaponticum, is the variety that is commonly grown here in the U.S. Having raised a family through the Great Depression my grandparent in Maine kept a quarter acre fall and winter gardens behind their small gray and red cottage. The large, attractive leaves, bright red or crimson-colored stalks, and the tall, spiky flowers are quite decorative. Because destructive summer-grazing deer showed little interest in rhubarb their garden was a surrounded by a perennial border along the fence line with the tall leafy plant. Like any good daughter of the South I was up for many summer sunrises checking my homemade leprechaun traps in the pickle patch.* After a characteristically unsuccessful hunt the tall rhubarb underbrush was a cool dappled and sometimes itchy retreat for a brunch of vine ripened tomatoes with a stolen saltshaker from Grandma's kitchen dinette.

When cooking with this vegetable, slice off both ends of the stem; peel off the skin if it is hard and woody; wash and cut into sections. The younger the rhubarb the less likely it will need to be peeled. Because it’s so bitter not many people will eat it raw unless it’s accompanied with sugar and sometimes salt. Many cooks take advantage of its acidity by substituting it in recipes that call for a similar bitter ingredient like cranberries. A rhubarb sauce combined with sugar and a little orange zest makes a great partner with meat and fish. Ahhh and don’t forget that great American culinary icon: the rhubarb pie. It’s the secret of the good life.

Trivia about rhubarb

Here are some ins and outs about rhubarb for you:

  • Did you know that the fiber in rhubarb is a nice additive to handmade papers?
  • You read right when Teiresias wrote that rhubarb can be used to clean your pots and pans. If your pots and pans are burnt, fear not! An application of rhubarb over the afflicted area will bring back the shine in next to no time. It’s the oxalic acid that does all the work and it’s environmentally friendly!
  • It’s good as a hair color too! The fairly strong dye creates a golden hair color for persons whose hair is blond or light brown. Simmer 3 tablespoon of rhubarb root in 2 cups of water for fifteen minutes. Set aside overnight, and strain. Be sure to test the color on a few strands to determine the effect, then pour through the hair for a rinse.
  • As an organic insecticide,rhubarb leaves can be used. It’s an effective insecticide for any of the leaf-eating insects like cabbage caterpillars, aphids, peach and cherry slugs.

    To prepare a homemade insecticide; in three pints of water boil about three pounds of rhubarb leaves for 15 to 20 minutes. Cool, and then dissolve about three tablespoons of soap flakes into the liquid. Strain the liquid into a spray bottle and use on those garden pests.

How did a vegetable become baseball slang for an argument or fight?

The plant's history is so old that even its etymology is somewhat obscured. In the English language, the word "rhubarb" didn’t emerge until the mid-1400s. The Random House Dictionary for Writers and Readers tags rhubarb as British and gives the following definition:
'A vocal dispute or argument; murmurous or muttered general conversation (a word repeated by actors to simulate this in crowd scenes)'.

In other words it was a royal battle, as in a donnybrook. Today a rhubarb is synonymous with melees and free for alls, but in Shakespeare’s day when a play called for a crowd scene, the director gathered an assembly of actors and had them noisily mutter something akin to “Rhu-bar-bar, rhu-bar-bar ,rhu-bar-bar, which reverberated through the theatre like the sounds of an angry horde. " Try it. I'll bet you sound pretty threatening, especially if you've got a couple of friends with you. From this "rhubarb" eventually came to be theatrical slang for "commotion." Rhubarb meant 'to make crowd noises', and actors who did it were called "rhubarbers." This standard stage practice then became a verb "rhubarbing", eventually "rhubarb" came to mean, "fight."

Other sources disagree with Random House. Some say this originated in Australia and found its way to Britain, still others that it started in Germany.

As a slang term, "rhubarb" means a heated, disorderly dispute, not necessarily a fistfight but it as a rule involves at least a lot of yelling. One theory that converges the idea of rhubarb as a fight is the phrase ”Hey Rube!” (1890-1930), a shout circus people used to summon help in fights against local rowdies. It's not impossible, but that's only one among many theories about "rhubarb," and a couple of etymologists say there doesn't seem to be any evidence that connects "Hey Rube!" and "rhubarb."

It was apparently a common sound effect in radio too documented as early as 1934. During early radio dramas of the 1930’s and 40’s when the noise of an angry crowd was needed, actors in the studio would repeatedly utter the word rhubarb, to get the right effect. The hullabaloo and ruckus of a radio crowd was then transmitted over to the noise of a fight or quarrel.

The use in baseball dates to about 1943. I’ve heard this term from baseball commentators to describe brouhahas between teams and it icaught my interest in looking up the origins of this word.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary defines rhubarb as 'a ruckus with the umpire(s)' or 'a fight between players or between the players and fans' and dates the first use in this sense to 1943.

Red Barber called his autobiography Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat (1968) and referred to Ebbets Field as "the rhubarb patch" because of Dem Bums' penchant for arguing with the umpires. Barber is largely responsible for popularizing the term but he never claimed credit for originating it. Barber says he got it either from Brooklyn-born sportswriter Garry Schumacher or from Tom Meany, another sportswriter, who said he had picked it up from an unknown barkeep in Brooklyn in the late 1930s. The bartender used it to describe a bar room altercation where a Brooklyn fan shot a Giants fan. Apparently they take their baseball very seriously in New York.

There are combinations of variations on the theory of the Brooklyn origin, some more fanciful than others. Among them, a messy sandwich that youngsters going out to play baseball in Greenpoint. The children were given these "healthy" rhubarb sandwiches by their mothers, which the kids used as weapons in scuffles with the opposing team.

Yet other less credible theories hold that the term derives from the tangled appearance of stewed rhubarb, or that losers in barroom brawls in Brooklyn were often forced to drink bitter rhubarb tonic by the victors, and thus "rhubarb" came to be Brooklyn slang for "fight."

Interestingly, the OED2 also mentions rhubarb as a 1943 military slang for a fighter mission to find targets of opportunity to strafe. It’s not hard to imagine that this might have come from a Brooklyn-born fighter pilot who had heard Barber use the term.

So what's the real origin of "rhubarb" as a fight? Nobody really knows for sure. Without completely discounting the Brooklyn connection for the baseball usage, it seems that the most likely source of the 'brawl' meaning of rhubarb as the theatrical "rhubarb-rhubarb" theory. Even so, Brooklyn has a new minor-league, ballpark; so one can look forward to plenty of rhubarbs on Coney Island too!

* Because some have wondered. Would you love to hear more about the leprechaun traps in the pickle patch? Oh then you must read my Pickle write up! One set of grandparents lived in Texas and we would check traps with Grandfather early in the mornings. That habit carried over when visiting our Irish grandparents in Maine becoming combination of sorts of Northern and Southern folkway and custom.


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