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I’m a Rhubarbarian

5/5/2022

Last Sunday, May 1, would have been my late brother Tom’s 75th birthday. He is much missed by his extended family members and many, many friends. 

Tom was blessed with many talents, among them an uncommon knack for creative writing. He also possessed a lifetime love for rhubarb. He combined both personality aspects in a short essay published in 2012 by the Des Moines Register, headlined “Eating rhubarb pie a religious experience.”

Tom’s wife Vikki gave me permission to republish it as my column this week in remembrance. Thanks, Vikki, and thanks, Tom. Here’s what he wrote:

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My religious preference? I’m a Rhubarbarian, a childhood convert to rhubarb pie.

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A miracle led to my conversion.

I remember trotting through the kitchen when I was about 10 years old and scooping up the last piece of pie from the counter. In a family of seven, the miracle was the existence of a “last piece” of any dessert. I ate it on the run. I had assumed it was apple, but it wasn’t. It was new, it was delicious, and I was hooked. I was a believer.

Rhubarbarianism is not monolithic. Like many religious groups, we have our schisms. I am Orthodox: I take my rhubarb straight. Liberal Rhubs add strawberries to dilute the tartness. Progressives prefer even a milder version with custard.

In pie, as in life, however, Rhubarbarians are willing to embrace the character-building tension between the bitter and the sweet.

It is the personal relationship that distinguishes rhubarb from other fillings. Unlike with a blueberry or coconut cream, you are often personally acquainted with the plants that supplied it. The best rhubarb comes fresh, not from the grocery store but your own backyard, or a relative’s or friend’s, loved and tended by someone you know.

Not that it needs much tending. A rhubarb plant asks for so little. Rich, black Iowa topsoil will sustain healthy roots for years with little special treatment. I once asked a master gardener at Living History Farms if he puts manure on his rhubarb in the spring. “No,” he deadpanned. “I prefer sugar and cream.”

It is worth getting to know rhubarb people. After some 25 years in our Ames church congregation, I had persuaded several excellent pie bakers to believe that rhubarb was a sacrament essential to every successful potluck. I knew I had succeeded when I was scolded for missing a potluck where there was a rhubarb pie baked especially for me.

When my wife and I moved to Lamoni, we drove up and down the streets getting acquainted with our new hometown. She looked at houses; I checked out backyards for rhubarb. As long as you’re making new friends, I reasoned, it’s just as easy to start with those who grow rhubarb.

In the movie “Chariots of Fire” about the 1924 Olympics, a British sprinter confides to his sister: “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” I get no pleasure out of running. Increasingly, running reminds me of my own mortality. But I get a great deal of joy in eating rhubarb pie. If it were an Olympic sport, I would be a medal contender.

A sense of gratitude is at the heart of every religion. Each of us has been gifted with a unique list of joy givers, activities that brighten our days and affirm the value of life. They can be anything—walking with friends, doing crosswords, watching football, playing with toddlers. They are the things that, when you do them, make you grateful for the moments spent. The measure is not how well you do them but how much you enjoy them.

For me, eating rhubarb pie is, indeed, a joy giver, and I am grateful for it. Is it too much to say that when Rhubarbarians eat a slice of homemade rhubarb pie, we “feel God’s pleasure?” Not for me.

May the piece of God be with you.

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And with you, Tom.

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