Two feet of dirt was piled on top of the old rhubarb plant last fall. I mourned, thinking I would never see it again. I had a septic system installed and added a flush toilet to my bathroom. I consoled myself with the thought that I had divided the rhubarb and put the division in the garden, so I still had a descendant of the plant.

“If you are going to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs,” I thought, and the rhubarb plant that I strongly suspect Annie Bunker, who lived in this house at the turn of the last century, had established in a space on the north side of the house, was just a little too close to the plot that the septic system encompassed.

Yet here we are in June, and lo, dark green leaves have emerged on the eastern flank of the septic system mound. Annie’s rhubarb, obviously a noble and durable plant, has survived all the backhoe to-ing and fro-ing, and a heap of dirt being dumped on its head. I greeted it as I would an old friend.

That plant gave me one of the first dishes I cooked from food grown on the island soil on which I have now lived for 26 years. We moved to the island in the middle of May, and, within a week or so, the old rhubarb plant had set out enough red stalks from which to make one very decent rhubarb crisp, becoming the first thing I harvested from this land.

When I was growing up, my mother served us rhubarb sauce every spring, simply stewed with sugar added. I was not fond of it. In my early 20s, I discovered strawberry-rhubarb jam made out of rhubarb and strawberry Jello; not my finest culinary moment. Maybe other people were making interesting things out of rhubarb in the early 1970s, but I wasn’t.

It seems to me, though, that in the past ten years, rhubarb may have attained new respect among cooks and eaters. Perhaps the plethora of farmers markets here in Maine, elsewhere across the country, and even ones on islands, has put rhubarb into people’s hands and fostered experiments with recipes.

In addition to rhubarb cakes, both upside down and right side up, and rhubarb pies, with or without strawberries, and rhubarb custard pies, we can add rhubarb crisp, chutney, compote and sorbet. You can add rhubarb mousse, puddings, and the usual slumps and grunts. I saw one recipe for “bluebarb” made with rhubarb and blueberries mixed.

I even have a recipe for rhubarb vodka, and there are instructions out there for a rhubarb fizz made with rhubarb syrup topped with champagne. Another way to drink rhubarb, besides make it into wine, includes mixing rhubarb syrup, strawberries and bourbon. What a waste of bourbon.

Drive by an old island farmhouse, and you are likely to see rhubarb plants somewhere not far from the kitchen door. The deer don’t eat it, an endearing feature of the plant if there ever was one.

Toward the end of June, lots of rhubarb plants have grown weedy with great tall flower stalks rising out of them, and they give up and die back. I ask my plants to produce a little longer. Annie’s rhubarb, being of the old school, has more of a proclivity for going to seed than a newer variety I acquired a few years ago which has smaller, pale pink stalks, but which, if I lop off the flower stems, produces useable rhubarb well into July.

Actually, the flowers make for a stunning arrangement in the middle of the dining table; your guests will scratch their heads recognizing something vaguely familiar, but not quite sure how to place it.

Just for the heck of it, here is a rhubarb compote recipe that my neighbor Linda gave me. This is one of my new favorite ways to use rhubarb. It makes for an elegant little dish, lovely to eat by itself, good with granola, and delicious on vanilla ice cream. If you don’t feel like messing around with making neat little chunks and slivers, just chop up the ingredients and bake it. After all the rhubarb strawberry business we have been subject to, it is a delightful change to have orange in the picture.

Rhubarb Orange Compote

5 oranges

1 cup sugar

¼ cup water

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

4 cups rhubarb, cut into 1-inch pieces

Cognac (optional)


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. With a very sharp small knife, cut six 1-inch julienne strips from one of the oranges, being careful not to get any of the white pith. Blanch the strips in boiling water for five minutes, drain, and cut them into slivers; set aside.

Squeeze the orange from which you have taken the strips plus one other. Pour the juice into a small saucepan and add to it the sugar and cinnamon and cook about five minutes until the sugar dissolves. Put the rhubarb in an ovenproof glass dish. Distribute the reserved orange strips over the rhubarb and add the orange syrup.

Cover the dish with a baking sheet or foil and bake for 20-25 minutes or until the rhubarb is tender but still whole. Let it cool.

Peel the remaining three oranges and cut into wedges, removing the membrane that separates the sections. Add the orange sections and Cognac (if you are using it) to the rhubarb. Chill.

Makes six servings.