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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Vicki's Recipe for Rhubarb

Vicki’s Recipe for Rhubarb
My grandma Vicki came to this country from Poland when she was 6 years old.  After spending a decade or so in St. Clairsville, a coal mining town in Ohio, she came north with my grandfather to pursue their fortune in Detroit, working for Walter Chrysler in the Lynch Road assembly plant.  Vicki reminded me of a cross between Rosie the Riveter, and Edith Bunker on the popular All in the Family series.  She came packaged in the same colorful aprons and housedresses, with a Polish accent, and the same homespun, pragmatic outlook on life. 

Vicki was definitely a character that defied the imagination.  She had the equivalent of a sixth grade education, but my father and I were convinced she received intensive training at a Special School for Grandmothers, a place where grandmothers are sent to learn how to be the way they are.  After all, where else would Vicki have picked up on all the things grandmothers the world over seemed to share in common?  Take cooking for example. My grandmother Vicki clearly went to a special school for cooking lessons.  Where else would she have learned how to use bacon fat in just about every recipe from frying food to baking pies?  Where else could she have learned to cook in such mass quantities (often without a written recipe) even after her sons had moved away, her husband had long passed, and she lived alone?

My grandma Vicki learned that homemade pie was a cure-all for many of the misfortunes that befall most people.  She also learned if one homemade pie was good for you, then ten must be ten times better.  I know this because I was at her house one day.  She lived in one of those post-war two story brick bungalows over on the East side of Detroit off Gratiot.  I was taking her to the Sign of the Beef Carver for an early dinner, and then grocery shopping.  As we traveled down the baking aisle at Farmer Jack's that day, she asked me what kind of pie I liked. 

“Do you’ns like rhubarb pie? Maybe I’ll make you’ns a rhubarb pie to take home.  Your dad likes that rhubarb pie. Yeah, y’know that’s what I’ll do,” she rattled on.

Sure.  What else was I going to say? That was all she needed to know.  It was enough to prompt her to make a rhubarb pie for us every week afterward for months on end.  My dad and I would go there on Tuesdays, always Tuesdays, to take her on errands and grocery shopping, since she did laundry on Monday, and had a standing hair appointment on Wednesday.  And each week when we returned from her weekly errands—to the butcher, the pharmacy, the bakery, the fortune teller—Vicki presented one of us with a freshly baked rhubarb pie.  The rhubarb came right out of her backyard, a bumper crop she cultivated along the edge of a chain link fence that framed her postage-stamp sized victory garden. She continued this practice throughout the entire summer, even as her supply of rhubarb dwindled.  Vicki was a pioneer of the Great Depression, by definition a person of extraordinary thrift.  Undaunted, she began to stretch the remaining, thinning rhubarb each week by adding tapioca and more sugar. 

These became more interesting concoctions as the months progressed. After bringing home an anemic green rhubarb pie one week, only to find one still on the counter untouched from the week before, I went to my dad and told him she needed to be stopped.  He wouldn’t hear of it.  “You can’t tell your grandma to stop baking us pies, that’s ridiculous!”  So I went back the next week to take her shopping, convinced I needed to take matters into my own hands.

As we were browsing the vegetable aisle at Farmer Jack’s, I started in, “Grandma, you know, you don’t have to make us a rhubarb pie every week.  That seems like an awful lot of work. It’s okay if you don’t.”
She nodded appreciatively, as if she understood.  The next week I showed up in her kitchen, and there on the counter was another creation.  I wasn't sure exactly whether it was a pie.  It was in a pie dish, that much was certain.  But this one was covered in a weird mound of white frothy ooze.  She was standing there, wiping her hands in her apron and beaming. 

I blurted out the most enthusiastic reaction I could muster, “Oh wow, is that another pie?”

“Yeah, you’ns don’t like the same thing all the time, so I made something different this time.” And with that, she presented me with a Green Tapioca Rhubarb Meringue pie.

What I’ve learned in the years since she has been gone is that with little formal schooling, Vicki had more wisdom than most folks with college degrees.  Although her work life was spent on the factory floor, and the only elected office she ever held was as president of the Women’s Auxiliary of the VFW, she remained convinced that she could solve many of the world’s most pressing problems—hunger, world peace and domestic violence, with recipes conjured up in the confines of her tiny kitchen. 

That’s because she learned how to live right as a graduate of that Special School for Grandmothers.  She became an extraordinary student in the larger lessons of life.  She had learned that you can’t believe everything you hear. But as they say, a smart person believes half of what they see, and the genius knows which half.  Vicki was ingenious at knowing which half, because she had faith.  But this faith in human nature ultimately blinded her to the fact that another human being might have something against her, or would take something not theirs to take.  That’s why twenty years ago, Vicki let someone into her kitchen one day, began to feed them, and was killed in the process.  Remains of a mostly uneaten pie were found in her Frigidaire when we went to clean out her house days later. 

Nowadays, whenever I make rhubarb pie for friends or family, I see Vicki so vividly in her kitchen, her apron dusted with flour.  I think of all the work across the planet devoted to pursuing domestic tranquility and world peace.  There’s so much work left to be done.  But the place to begin is very clear.  

Start small in your corner of the kitchen by making someone a pie.  Keep in mind, if you make one each and every week, there will still never be enough rhubarb pie to go around.

Ron's Edible Adaptation of Vicki's Rhubarb Pie

  • 1 recipe pastry for a 9 inch double crust pie (I use Crisco instead of Vicki's bacon fat)
  • 2 cups diced rhubarb (try to pick the fattest, red juicy stalks and leave the green ones!) 
  • 2 1/2 cups hulled strawberries 
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons butter, diced
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (I'm not a nutmeg person, so I eliminate this)
  • 1/2 lemon's worth of grated lemon zest (I added this too)*
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

* I can't imagine Vicki displaying the patience to grate a lemon!

Baking Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C). Divide the pie pastry in half; roll out half into a circle on a floured work surface, and line a 9-inch pie dish with bottom crust. Roll the remaining half out into a 10-inch circle on a floured work surface, and set aside.
  2. Mix the rhubarb, whole strawberries, 1 cup of sugar, flour, butter, and nutmeg together in a bowl. Pour the filling into the crust-lined pie dish.
  3. Cut the remaining crust into 3/4-inch wide strips (use a scalloped edge pastry cutter for a prettier crust). Moisten the rim of the filled bottom crust with a bit of water, and lay the two longest strips in a cross in the middle of the pie. Working from the next longest down to the shortest strips, alternate horizontal and vertical strips, weaving the strips as you go. Press the lattice strips down onto the bottom crust edge to seal, and trim the top crust strips neatly. Mix 1 tablespoon of sugar with cinnamon in a small bowl, and set aside.  Okay, truth be told I added this entire step.  In truth, Vicki would not have the patience to create a lattice with the dough.  In fact, she worked the dough too much on most occasions, and her crust wasn't as flaky as it should be, so I have added this, knowing she'd smile on the result.
  4. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes; reduce heat to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Remove pie. Sprinkle the top with the cinnamon-sugar mixture, and return to oven; bake until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling, about 30 more minutes.
  5. Nota Bene:  Vicki was notorious for going outside to put her wash out on the clothesline while there was a pie in the oven.  She would invariably return to the kitchen to the smell of burnt sugar.  As a precaution, especially if the rhubarb is especially juicy, I place a cookie sheet underneath the pie with some baking soda in case some of the filling spills over.