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Rhubarb hunts a place beyond the pie

For rhubarb lovers, walking the rows of Allen Scholz's farm can be torture. Everywhere you look, beautiful pink-red stalks of this underappreciated plant have been cut down and simply lie in the dirt, ready to be tossed away.

Most are fine specimens with just a minor nick or scratch. They would make a perfect pie or jam. No matter. Modern rhubarb buyers demand pristine plants; even a tiny imperfection won't do.  Scholz discards half his crop before it leaves his farm.

"They're absorbing the cost right out in the field," says Cindy Moore, manager for the Washington Rhubarb Growers Association, a farmers' co-op and one of the few remaining defenders of the vegetable (yes, it's a vegetable). "Talk to any of these guys. It'll break their hearts."

These are grim times for what remains of the nation's rhubarb industry.  Certainly, there is no animus towards the stuff. When people think about it at all, rhubarb hastens nostalgia -- fond memories of summer pies, the sort Grandma might have made. In some corners, it is simply called "the pie plant."

That's just the problem.  With modern agriculture's razor-thin margins, commodity produce is a starkly competitive business, and rhubarb is not a plant that easily makes a case for itself. Nor does its stalky, fibrous consistency make for an easy ingredient in a world devoted to fast food and microwaves.

"Rhubarb just doesn’t lend itself real well to that kind of cuisine," says R. Allen Straw, a University of Tennessee extension vegetable specialist who has written on how to grow the stalks in his state's warmer, moister climate.

A tiny cropJust 1,809 acres are planted across the United States, according to the 2002 U.S. agricultural census, though that is surely augmented by the backyard patches.

Washington is the biggest rhubarb growing state, with 824 acres. The growers association controls 349 acres, half the size of its crop just 30 years ago. Nationally, rhubarb is trumped by okra, turnip greens and even escarole. In many areas of the nation, it can be difficult to find at all.

"I don’t know that I've ever seen it in a chain grocery store," Straw says.

All of which seems a shame to the few Northwest farmers still trying to grow it, including Scholz, whose 14 acres -- nearly 1 percent of the national crop -- make him a notable man in the rhubarb world.

The cool, moderate climate and rich soils west of the Cascade Mountains -- in places like the Auburn Valley, 40 miles south of Seattle, where Scholz's farm is found -- are the perfect growing climate for rhubarb, thought to be native to Siberia and central Asia, with one medicinal variety recorded in ancient China.

"This stuff grows like a weed here," Scholz says. "It used to be a giant industry."

Rhubarb's bad rapRhubarb has long suffered from a largely undeserved reputation for being difficult. A comparatively high content of malic and oxalic acids contribute to a sour, astringent taste, often so strong that it needs to be combined with a sweetening agent. It can have a pH as low as 3, as acidic as some vinegar.

The oxalic acid, found in cleaning agents, was also long blamed for the presumed toxicity of rhubarb leaves, though it is not clear exactly what in the leaves causes the adverse reaction. (You would need to eat over 10 pounds of leaves to ingest a fatal dose of oxalic acid.) In any case, you won't find rhubarb sold with the leaves still on. Scholz's workers hack them off immediately after removing stalk from root.

In its World War II heyday, when it substituted for less available vegetables, rhubarb had at least a notable following. That has tapered off by as much as 90 percent. Even high-quality domestic rhubarb faces pressure from imports, notably from Poland.

While consumers will pay extra for some high-quality produce, like tomatoes, there aren't many discriminating shoppers looking for heirloom rhubarb. Major retailers like Wal-Mart, keen to find the lowest wholesale price, have become less reliant on domestic sources.

There are still bright spots, like frozen rhubarb, often sold in pre-cut chunks. The Washington growers freeze 1.5 million pounds annually, over half the 2.6 million pounds of domestic rhubarb shipped each year. Some 60,000 20-pound cases of fresh rhubarb still make it as far as Texas, New York and Florida.

The farmers have stretched their growing season, harvesting in successive waves from March through September, plus a winter hothouse crop of delicate light-pink stalks, popular with fancy chefs, which commands higher prices. They sell another 15,000-20,000 cases of the hothouse annually.

'A lot of pie'Their association has been spending its scarce marketing money on a modest campaign that aims to educate a younger breed of consumers about the stalk's potential. "They have the old myth of Grandma's rhubarb pie, which we all love," says Moore, who lost 74 pounds on a rhubarb-heavy low-carb diet, "but Grandma's not baking anymore."

Perhaps she still is. The intrepid bakers of Aledo, Ill., manage to turn out 14,000 pies for the two-day Rhubarb Fest, held in early June. "That’s a lot of pie," says Darlene Johnson, founder of Aledo's annual festival.

One of at least six rhubarb festivals held around the world, Johnson launched Aledo's celebration of the stalk in 1990, with just 13 dishes and 65 people. It now draws nearly 10,000 people from a half-dozen surrounding states to this town of 3,600 near the Iowa border.

They feast not simply on pies but on meatballs slathered with rhubarb barbeque sauce, with rhubarb ice cream for dessert.  Rhubarb wine and tea fill cups.

"There's no limit," says Johnson. "Every year, everybody scratches to come up with a new recipe."

Innovation extends to the nation's finer kitchens. At New York's Veritas, diners can tuck into seared foie gras with rhubarb confit for an additional $8 above the $68 tasting menu. Executive chef Scott Bryan likes the way its extremely sour, savory notes punch up seafood.

"I love rhubarb," he says. "It's not a difficult ingredient to work with. I just think that, you know what, a lot people don't have a lot of experience with it, so you don't see it."

Rhubarb growers hope to overcome that. New recipe booklets include items like rhubarb pico de gallo. There are hints that Ben & Jerry's and suppliers for Williams-Sonoma may be planning rhubarb delicacies.

As though rhubarb's fight for recognition weren't enough, its diverse color scheme has prompted an apparently heated bicoastal rivalry. East Coast growers use varieties with greener stalks, and praise their tangy virtues, while the West Coast supplies varieties like Crimson Red often sought out by intrepid pie types.

Hope in a pale plant
One such pie maker is Theresa Millang, author of "The Joy of Rhubarb" (Adventure Publications), though she finds little difference in varietal flavors. She, too, awaits rhubarb's marketing makeover, and hints that those who have been frightened off, à la Brussels sprouts, should expand their culinary horizons: "It's just a very good thing, as Martha would say." (As in Stewart, whose baking books don't skimp on rhubarb options.)

Hothouse rhubarb's subtler flavors, and ghostly pink stalks, are a brave new face for the plant. The plants, from a proprietary variety called Johnson Red, begin their lives outside, where stalks can grow nearly three feet high. In the fall, they are transplanted into bins and hauled inside, tended in complete darkness. Without nutrients, the hearty roots drive all their energy into the stalks, vainly trying to find sunlight. "It just grows itself to death," Scholz says.

These specialty stalks may be growers' best bet as the modern world encroaches. Facing a hike in property taxes, one of the Washington co-op's most prolific growers recently gave up his farm as a Costco warehouse moved in. Scholz has diversified into berries.

Standing in Scholz's field, "Rhubarb Ruben" Sandberg, who has tended to the valley's stalks since 1962, points around at the hearty green leaves and crimson stalks. "10 years? This'll all be gone," he scowls.

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