Not long ago, Frederic Eliot, head chef at Scales in Portland, posted a few choice words on Facebook. To Mainers, they were fightin’ words.

“Fiddleheads are gross,” he wrote. “They taste like moss when raw and then cooked, have zero flavor. Sorry hipsters.”

The post (which made me laugh) drew a ton of protests from the chef’s friends, but I understood where he was coming from, completely. Why? Because I feel the same way about rhubarb.

My opinions about rhubarb are as unpopular as Eliot’s in my little corner of the newsroom, specifically in the chair occupied by food editor Peggy Grodinsky, lover of rhubarb in all its icky forms. She’s always trying to get me to eat it, and swears she could present it in a form that would be palatable to me. (Is that the only demand we require of our food these days? That it be tolerable?)

Oh, I will eat rhubarb occasionally, if I am hungry enough and it is disguised well enough (meaning drowning in sugar). But I don’t seek it out. Eliot, I discovered after a little back-and-forth, loves rhubarb jam. Do you know how much sugar goes into a basic rhubarb jam? For every 2 pounds or so of chopped rhubarb, you’re looking at a whole pound of sugar. And don’t get me started on that staple dessert of spring, strawberry-rhubarb pie. It ought to be called “A Waste of Good Strawberries.”

I don’t like the texture or extreme tartness of rhubarb. So shoot me. When Peggy begs me to reconsider, you know what I’m thinking? “Why is it so important to you that I like this odd, stringy stalk that looks like red celery?” It’s not like I’m saying I hate puppies. There’s no need to call the FBI to investigate my latent serial killer tendencies. Everyone has a food they don’t care for. (In the Facebook fiddlehead exchange, one commenter noted that drinking Moxie was like “taking a sip from a flat can of Tab that had been used as an ashtray.”)


My father hates broccoli with a passion. I have his genes, yet I love cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli. But I respect his tastes and never cook broccoli when I’m visiting. A lot of people gag at the sight of cauliflower, but I think an uncooked head of cauliflower is nothing less than a work of art. With the help of a hungry friend, I once consumed an entire (small) head of roasted cauliflower at Walkers Maine in Cape Neddick. And the fried cauliflower I had at Baharat in Portland a few weeks ago was so dreamy, I was tempted to order a second portion. I like bitter greens, and I love the tartness of kombucha. But undoctored, cooked rhubarb is too tart and feels a little slimy to me, like nature’s pink snot.

Five years ago, I wrote a column headlined “Recipes to Make Rhubarb Haters Reconsider,” for which I had to interview chefs about the creative ways they were cooking with rhubarb, such as in rhubarb cocktails and rhubarb-hibiscus crepes. Did that change my mind? No.

I am not alone in my disdain for rhubarb. Entire blogs and websites are dedicated to the topic. Consider the “I Hate Rhubarb” Facebook page, which is apparently based in Australia. The page has a few photos of people making funny “Rhubarb Faces”; they look as if they are sniffing sweaty, stinky sneakers. The page notes that rhubarb “is actually a weed that someone decided to eat centuries ago. It can be toxic and only ever gets used with loads of sugar.”

“We have all been conned!”

Maybe the love of rhubarb is a regional quirk. Rhubarb was around (more or less) in my Southern childhood, but people don’t eat it there the way they do here in New England. Here, I believe, love of rhubarb is heavily influenced by that first, desperate whiff of spring. It’s another sign, along with crocuses and fiddleheads, that our long winter slog is at last coming to an end. If deadly foxgloves thrived in spring, we’d probably eat those, too.

I got a good chuckle out of a recent Facebook thread that was all about rhubarb. Marty and her husband Steve, family friends from Tennessee, recently moved to Wyoming. One morning this spring, Marty discovered something strange growing in her yard, right in front of her flower bed. It looked like a colorful, alien insect poking its head through the spring snow. She posted pictures.


“Who knows what this is beginning to bud from my Wyoming backyard?” Marty asked her Southern friends on April 20. “It grew last year into a tall plant with big stalks. Ugly.”

Once a gardener identified the plant as rhubarb, Marty’s friend Danielle interjected: “It makes an awesome pie!!”

Another friend said she’d heard praise for rhubarb pie for years, “especially if mixed with strawberries. Cousin in Virginia raises it. Says it’s the best.”

But many of Marty’s friends appeared to be unfamiliar with rhubarb and with rhubarb pie.

“That’s nasty,” wrote Cindy. “I say spray it with Roundup.” (Note: I do not endorse using Roundup, so please don’t send me angry emails.)

“No lie …” wrote Leigh. “I thought it was some ripped-up animal you took a picture of in your yard.”


Some folks suggested that Marty transplant the rhubarb to a more appropriate spot. In the end, her husband cut it out of the yard, split it up and gave it to two couples at church.

Marty says if it grows back, she might try making a pie. Not on my watch, sister.

There is one thing I do like about rhubarb – the word itself. Did you know that the word rhubarb was used by radio actors in the 1930s to mimic the sound of a rowdy, out-of-control crowd? “Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb…”

Think fibrous loose ends. A tangled mess. A rhubarb.

It’s also baseball slang for an argument or fight between players and umpires (it was even used this way in the New York Times in 1947). Baseball lore says that sportswriter Garry Schumacher coined the word in the late 1930s, and radio announcer Red Barber popularized it.

According to Time magazine, fighter pilots on strafing missions during World War II were said to be “on a rhubarb.”


My favorite use of the word is from a 1951 movie called – you guessed it – “Rhubarb.” It’s about a cat that inherits a Brooklyn baseball team from his wealthy, eccentric owner. Seriously. Academy Award winner Ray Milland, Gene Lockart, William Frawley (aka Fred Mertz) and even a very young Leonard Nimoy (who didn’t get a credit for his role) are in the film.

Press Herald Food Editor (and rhubarb lover) Peggy Grodinsky (left) faces off with Press Herald food writer (and rhubarb loather) Meredith Goad. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Here’s a bit of movie trivia that I know my editor, Peggy the cat lover, will like:  A male marmalade tabby cat named Orangey played Rhubarb, along with 13 look-alike stand-ins. In the game scenes there were, apparently, a lot of catcalls from the stands. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

Back to rhubarb, the food. I confess that I always found Garrison Keillor’s little ditty on A Prairie Home Companion, “Bebob-a-Rebop Rhubarb Pie,” funny and catchy. Before singing the song, he always spun a tale of a day when everything – and I mean everything – went dreadfully wrong. His story of woe always ended with:

“Wouldn’t this be a good time for a piece of rhubarb pie? Yes, nothing gets the taste of shame and embarrassment out of your mouth like a piece of rhubarb pie.”

(Maybe because it’s like washing your mouth out with a slimy glob of tart liquid soap.)

Then he sang: “One little thing can revive a guy, and that is a piece of rhubarb pie.”


(Yes, because it’s so awful.)

“Serve it up, nice and hot. Maybe things aren’t as bad as you thought.”

Or maybe they are, if that’s all you’ve got for comfort food. Me? I prefer pecan pie. Or coconut cream.

Anything but rhubarb.

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