Rhubarb: A May Vegetable

Although common cultivated rhubarb is a vegetable from the Polygonaceae family (of which sorrel is also a member), the ruby toned stalks are mostly used in dessert recipes. Besides imparting its lovely hue, rhubarb's tart juices meld nicely with sugar.

Rheum rhabarbarum 'Valentine'.

Rhubarb, a cool-climate perennial, starts to appear in March and reaches its peak around May to June. While rhubarb is often grown in vegetable gardens, I prefer to plant rhubarb throughout my garden, wherever there is an opening amidst other low, sun-loving perennials and herbs, ensuring a bountiful crop. While the poisonous leaves are inedible, the plant's attractive appearance makes it a lovely choice for many locations (until the stalks are picked, of course).

While at Kitchen Arts and Letters in New York, one of my favorite bookstores, I found Mary Prior's Rhubarbaria: Recipes for Rhubarb, a brief but thorough collection of rhubarb recipes from early and modern cookbooks. From Prospect Books' "The English Kitchen" series, Rhubarbaria begins with "Rhubarb in Britain," a 24-page micro history that traces rhubarb's journey from China to the British kitchen through early modern cookbooks, botanical, and travel writings. The following chapters feature rhubarb in a variety of recipes; one chapter is titled, "Rhubarb as a Vegetable" and Prior includes many savory recipes, such as the Afghan Sabzi Rahwash: Spinach with Rhubarb and Dill. Some of the best recipes that combine ingredients from the garden are found in Chapter 4, "Rhubarb Soups." I think either Rhubarb, Ginger and Mint Soup, or Chilled Rhubarb, Ginger and Elderflower Soup would be perfect for a summer meal. Sweeter versions could be served as a dessert, such as Hungarian Sweet Rhubarb Soup, made with sour cream, or this pretty Danish Cold Rhubarb Soup.

Cold rhubarb soup from Rhubarbaria, made with porridge oats and vanilla.

Roly-poly with rhubarb jam filling and vanilla custard sauce.

Rhubarb-Green Tea Jam by Le Palais des Thés.

In dessert recipes, rhubarb is almost always cooked with sugar until it breaks down to a jam-like consistency. When rhubarb is not in season, simply substitute a good quality rhubarb jam for the fresh stalks. There are usually several enticing combinations to choose from such as strawberry-rhubarb, raspberry-rhubarb, or this rhubarb and green tea jam, from Le Palais des Thés. I recommend using the jam in a Bakewell Tart, a fruit and lemon curd filled cakey-pie topped with almonds, a riff on the British pudding.

Bakewell Tart, adapted from Tea & Crumpets by Margaret Johnson (Chronicle Books, 2009).

(for a 9" tart pan)

your favorite tart or pie dough

1/2 cup rhubarb jam
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbs lemon zest
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup grated almonds/almond meal
handful of chopped almonds

1. Preheat oven to 375ºF. Roll out chilled pie dough and line base of tart pan. Bake blind with pie weights for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and cool. Meanwhile in a large bowl mix together butter, sugar, salt, lemon zest, and eggs. Add flour and almond meal and mix well.

2. Spread jam over pastry dough in tart pan. Pour filling mixture over jam and spread evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle top with chopped almonds.

3. Bake for 30 minutes or until browned on top. Check on the tart periodically. If the top begins to get too brown, cover with aluminum foil for the remainder of baking time.

Rhubarb Bakewell Tart with Wisteria frutescens "Amethyst Falls."

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Celebrating Food and the World's Fair

The images in this post are from a set of commemorative postcards issued to promote the 1939 World's Fair, held in Flushing Meadow Park in New York City.

From street festivals and village fêtes to county carnivals, fairs have historically functioned as sites of both commercial and cultural exchange. Going to a fair represents a break from the quotidian-- a chance to experience something new and unexpected. Food, in the form of old favorites and new discoveries, is invariably part of the entertainment. Perhaps no fair has existed on a grander scale than the World's Fair. Beginning with London's Crystal Palace Exposition in 1851, in which 28 countries exhibited in pavilions, the World's Fair has been a stage for the performance of national identity through art and industry. This year's World Expo in Shanghai, which opened on May 1st, is no exception, with nearly 200 countries participating and a projected audience of 70-100 million.

Postcard from the 1939 World's Fair in New York, depicting the "Plaza of Governments."

The history of the World's Fair is very well documented and there is a large amount of archival material on the subject, including pamphlets, menus, and design plans. It is particularly interesting to consider the role of food and cuisine as a demonstration of national identity at these events. For instance, at Expo 67, held in Montreal to commemorate Canada's centennial anniversary, indigenous Canadian food was employed to illustrate and define Canada's cultural identity. The pavilion's restaurant, La Toundra, was decorated with line drawings of indigenous life and featured dishes of meat and fish particular to Canadian land and waters. An enlightening study on the subject can be found in "The Cuisine of the Tundra: Towards a Canadian Food Culture at Expo 67," by Rhona Richman Kenneally in Food, Culture & Society, vol.2 (3), 2008: 287-314.

Model of fairgrounds, previewed to the public at the Empire State Building.

Indeed, one can begin to trace the experience of the World's Fair through the period literature on the subject. The Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, was the subject of a charity cookery book compiled by Carrie V. Shuman titled, Favorite Dishes. A Columbian Autograph Souvenir Cookery Book. Over Three Hundred Autograph Recipes, and Twenty-three Portraits, Contributed By The Board Of Lady Managers Of The World's Columbian Exposition, published to raise admission funds for women who could not afford to attend the fair. Produced by the Columbian Exposition's Board of Lady Managers, a group of influential society women from 7 different states, the cookbook reflects the interests behind the fair's Woman's Building, which featured exhibits on women's achievements and a library of women's writing. At a time when women's rights was a commonly contested issue, the building's presence represents an attempt to situate the role of women within discourses on the nation. The cookbook, with its collection of regional favorites, attempts to bring together the experiences and allegiances of women across the United States through food. In an introductory piece Shuman decribes the collection as "the exponents of the Art of Cookery, at this stage of its best development in this country, and as cheerful assistants of women who need the encouragement and blessings of their more fortunate sisters." As a side note, the book's first chapter, "Tea," includes recommendations for serving "Five O'clock Tea" with a "teaball," as it is a convenient tool for the busy hostess and allows for an economical use of tea leaves.

Postcard from the 1939 World's Fair in New York, depicting a night view of the fair's signature monument, the Trylon and Perisphere.

The World's Fair attempts to portray, not just the character of individual nations and corporations, but a view of the world through dominant political and economic paradigms. The Fair was, and continues to be, a projection of the future as reflected through capitalist ventures. The 1939 World's Fair was themed "The World of Tomorrow" and featured a futuristic display of modern technology, culminating in the Trylon and Perisphere buildings (above), a monument to human ingenuity through industrial and scientific development, as the Second World War approached. While the preparation of food was reconsidered in exhibits featuring electric kitchen tools, the appearance of food itself could symbolize the future. For instance, the Sealtest Dairy pavilion pamphlet featured recipes for orbs of fried macaroni and cheese, an American classic reinvented as a futuristic spheroid.

Postcard from the 1939 World's Fair in New York, depicting the fair's Planetarium, a technological achievement in which "intricate machinery moves the heavens at will."

One can experience a culture through its cuisine. By consuming the exotic delicacies at the World's Fair, audiences came into contact with a romantic, fantasy image of foreign cultures and societies. Yet food can also stand as an embodiment of what seems 'foreign' about another culture. But cultural convergence can be unsettling, particularly if there are socio-political inequalities involved. This idea is illustrated in a 1936 Japanese novel by Yumeno Kyusaku, titled Ningen soseji, or Human Sausages. In this story, after a series of fantastical events a Japanese carpenter is plunged into the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, where he comes into contact with an American gangster trafficking in Asian women in a secret hideaway on the fairgrounds. Most frighteningly, the man discovers the gangster's personal sausage machine (a Western food product), into which humans have been fed. (See Tomoko Aoyama, Reading Food in Modern Japanese Literature, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009, for more analysis on this subject.) In this fantastic tale, technology is represented by a machine of annihilation, allowing the foreign West to consume the East through an act of anthropophagy.

Postcard from the 1939 World's Fair in New York, depicting the marine amphitheater.

A fortuitous occurrence at the St. Louis World's Fair led to the invention of iced tea at the East Asian Pavilion (Hohenegger, Beatrice, Liquid Jade: the Story of Tea from East to West, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2006). As the St. Louis summer heat turned visitors away from the pavilion's tea samples, the exhibitor, Richard Blechynden, added ice to the tea, creating a new and popular beverage. I think this story sums up the notion of the World's Fair quite well, as a global marketplace generating consumerism and conspicuous consumption through the ideologies put forth by the self-declared tastemakers of the day.

Links to World's Fair archives and ephemera:

ExpoMuseum- features a timeline with information on every World's Fair, podcasts, and useful links.
Shanghai Expo 2010- official site
Treasures of the New York Public Library: The New York World's Fair, 1939-40- video with information from the library's archives.
New York World's Fair, 1964/1965- exhaustive set of information on the pavilions at the 1964 fair.

Postcard from the 1939 World's Fair in New York, depicting the marine amphitheater at night.