Rhubarb: A tonic for spring

Jerry Apps
The rosy red stalks of the rhubarb plant are a welcome addition to many recipes...except for the spring tonic his dad ordered each spring.

When I was a kid the first thing to pop out of the ground after the snow disappeared and frost left the ground was rhubarb. It’s tough stuff. I don’t remember it ever not coming up.

I grew up liking most everything on my plate.  But there was and continues to be an exception: rhubarb sauce.  That stuff was awful. Pa insisted we eat it.  He said it was necessary to cleanse our body from winter and be prepared for spring. Ma’s recipe was simple:

 3-4 cups chopped rhubarb

1 cup sugar

⅓ cup of water

Put rhubarb pieces in a medium cooking pot, add sugar and a bit of water.  Start with medium heat, and then reduce to let it simmer as soon as it begins to bubble and boil.  Let simmer until the rhubarb cooks down, which should take about 25 minutes. Let cool and keep in refrigerator.

Curious as I am about these things, I begin wondering if my dad was onto something with his insistence that eating rhubarb sauce was a way to prepare our bodies for spring. Five thousand years ago, dried rhubarb roots were considered a medicine by the Chinese.

It is a mild laxative. But on the plus side, rhubarb is a good source of dietary fiber, has lots of vitamin C and K, plus calcium and potassium. And as much as I detest rhubarb sauce, rhubarb crisp ranks right up there with apple crisp. And don’t forget about strawberry-rhubarb pie, rhubarb muffins, and rhubarb cake. But don’t eat the leaves as they are poisonous and can cause breathing difficulty and burning in the mouth.  Rhubarb leaves are not poisonous to the touch.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: Eat your rhubarb sauce. It’s good for you.

Jerry Apps

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a Wisconsin farm, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 35 books, many of them on rural history and country life. For further information about Jerry's writing and TV work, go to