Last year, during the most important season of the New England calendar – rhubarb season (need you ask?) – my colleague Meredith Goad made a sweet, thoughtful gesture.

She knew how much I loved Ten Ten Pié bakery/cafe in Portland (now gone, alas), and she knew that I adored rhubarb. So one day in June, she returned to the office from an interview bearing a small bag with an unexpected treat for me: a jewel-like Ten Ten Pié rhubarb-almond tart.

I had barely thanked her, barely wiped the crumbs and butter and bliss from my face when Meredith spoiled everything with a tweet:

“I don’t care for rhubarb but I brought this tart from @MarkossMiller (who co-owned Ten Ten Pié) for @PGrodinsky & she spent the next 10 minutes trying to convince me to taste it. Rhubarb fans are like Southern Baptist evangelists – always certain they can change your mind so you’ll go to rhubarb heaven.”

A declaration of war

Yes, that’s how I took it. Wouldn’t you?

The tweets – and Facebook posts – did not stop with Meredith. I was dumbfounded and despondent to learn that rhubarb haters are all around us, cleverly disguised as otherwise intelligent, perfectly reasonable people. One such person tweeted, “I’m with her! Rhubarb and Fiddleheads: Sounds good, taste bad.” Another messaged Meredith on Facebook in support of her foolish, wrong-headed rhubarb notions, “Rhubarb is awful. Stick to your guns.”

Really? These so-called Mainers loathe this most quintessential of New England fruits?!

Yes, I wrote “fruits.” Please don’t send me a gotcha note. As food editor, naturally I am aware that rhubarb is technically a vegetable – despite a court in Buffalo, New York, classifying it as a fruit in 1947 on the grounds that, botany aside, Americans treat/eat it like a fruit. (The decision, in which the judge quotes from court testimony, is a fun read. A Mr. Louis Muchnik testifies “that he had eaten rhubarb pie in restaurants, stewed rhubarb at home, and rhubarb with cream for breakfast; that he had never eaten it as a side dish with poultry; and that he considered rhubarb pie a fruit pie since it was made like apple pie or peach pie.” Also testifying was a Mr. George R. Bewley, who said that “he had eaten custard pie, chocolate pie, and squash pie as dessert, but would not call those items fruit.”)

I am also aware that rhubarb started life far from New England. I’ve variously read China, Mongolia and Siberia. No wonder it’s at home in Maine – it likes the cold.

The war drags on

Two months later, and the rhubarb hubbub still simmered. (Note to readers: Rhubarb is not only delicious, it’s also fun to say.) I baked an applesauce cake and brought it to work. My colleague business reporter Ed Murphy wrote me a thank-you note. A backhanded thank-you note. “It’s delicious,” he emailed me, “so glad it’s not rhubarb season.” When I responded that he was on my guest list for my All-Rhubarb Dinner Party, already scheduled for 10 months later during the upcoming and highly anticipated 2019 rhubarb season, he declined the invitation. “I’m busy that month,” he emailed me.

I discovered others on the anti- (or anti-ish) rhubarb list. Culinary superstars who have since sunk in my esteem. There was renowned English food writer Jane Grigson, who called herself a recovering “rhubarb sufferer” in “Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book”; James Beard, Father of American Cooking and inspiration for the New York City-based foundation where I spent seven formative years of my life as a professional food writer; and, Eliza Leslie, a popular 19th-century cookbook writer from Philadelphia, my hometown, as it happens.

“Despite Miss Leslie, rhubarb has come into general use,” Beard wrote in “James Beard’s American Cookery,” “although I would not describe it as a champion among spring fruit.” Seemingly holding his nose, he proceeded to give his readers recipes for Baked Rhubarb, Rhubarb Fool and Rhubarb Ring with Strawberries.

With all due respect, who are these people? Do they hate puppies and babies and raindrops on roses, too?

Comfort zone

Like cranberries, lemon and sumac (other ingredients I find it a pleasure to cook with), rhubarb offers a sour wallop in an American diet that has, at times, skewed sweet. It brings balance and interest to many an otherwise one-note dessert and liveliness to many a savory dish. After a winter diet of braised, brown, mellow foods that make one want to nap, it’s as energizing as an early June dip in Casco Bay.

In the garden, rhubarb is tough and reliable. Unlike my rose bushes, it never gives me a moment’s worry. Rhubarb is, I once read on a gardening website, “a happy plant.” And for those who understand and appreciate it, it makes for happy eaters, too.

It was a huge relief to find some rhubarb lovers. My crowd.

There was Thyra Porter, who wrote on Meredith’s Facebook page, “Jamie Oliver has an amazing pork/rhubarb recipe that might change your mind.”

And Press Herald’s Green Plate Specialist Christine Burns Rudalevige, who chimed in with a recommendation for rhubarb pound cake from the New York Times. “I’ve made this twice and it is fabulous.”

Cookbook writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins magnanimously offered to eat Meredith’s portion of the Ten Ten Pié rhubarb-almond tart that had launched this rhubarb ruckus. Harmon Jenkins may have written some half dozen cookbooks on Italy and the Mediterranean, but when it comes to rhubarb, this 13th-generation Mainer knows her roots. Several sources, including Maine’s Cooperative Extension, credit a Maine gardener with bringing rhubarb to America in the first place, from Europe between 1790 and 1800. God bless Maine gardeners.

Right-thinking rhubarb eaters are not, of course, confined to New England. You can find them in many parts of the world: England, China, Poland, Iran and Afghanistan among them (though not in Texas. When I lived in Texas, I devoured figs from the trees and pined for rhubarb. Now it’s the other way around). Last winter, when the pleasures of Maine rhubarb lay dormant under feet of ice and snow, I encountered Trine Hahnemann’s recipe for Choux Pastry with Rhubarb in her cookbook “Copenhagen Food.” It brought a green-tinged, pale pink ray of sunshine into my chilly, rhubarb-deprived house. “I think most cakes should be made with rhubarb,” Hahnemann wrote with that recipe. “In my world there is no such thing as too much rhubarb!”

The 2019 rhubarb season

A year passes in which I try to not to let Meredith’s shocking misjudgment affect our working relationship. Rhubarb gives way to blueberries, the tourists arrive, the tomatoes ripen, the kids go back to school, the leaves color, the snow falls, the red-winged blackbirds return, the daffodils bloom, and here we are at rhubarb season once again. We are sitting around a table at our weekly features meeting brainstorming story ideas when Meredith has the nerve to bring up this sore subject. Admittedly, it is not my best moment, but I go on the attack: “I simply cannot understand how you can dislike rhubarb,” I say in a superior yet evangelizing tone.

Meredith lines up her defense: “Lots of people don’t like some ingredients.”

Trying hard to keep the peace, I am ready to concede the point. Then she makes a fatal mistake: “Canned pig brains in milk gravy,” she says defiantly.

It was a dish that chef Christian Hayes, of Dandelion Catering in Yarmouth, rode to a $10,000 victory last year on the television contest show “Chopped.” Meredith has taken it out of her back pocket in an attempt to bolster her point, but I am having none of it. This is her comparison??!!

Sour, emphatic, frisky, peppy, lovable rhubarb (oh delightful herald, at long last, of summer’s arrival in Maine)

Versus

Canned pig brains in milk gravy. Even Hayes conceded that the pig thing was “super vile” and “really disgusting.”

Rhubarb lovers, victory is ours! And in this case, it tastes gloriously sour.

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