Come spring and early summer, the race is on for urban rhubarb lovers to load up with sturdy red and green stalks, chop them up and pair them, like perennial newlyweds, with local strawberries. As soon as the latter fades, so goes the passion for the sorrel-related vegetable.
Turns out, local rhubarb is not so fleeting. Each week through mid-September, Jim Crawford will pull a couple hundred pounds of it from a modest plot among the 40 active acres on his organic New Morning Farm in Hustontown, Pa. His rhubarb is sold at his Washington neighborhood farm stands that also carry produce from the Tuscarora Organic Growers Co-op and at the FreshFarm Market in Dupont Circle.
“We’ve had it at Dupont every Sunday since 2006,” Crawford says, where it sells for $4 per pound. He sees the same trend: Sales peak in June, when the couple hundred pounds grows to several hundred per week. Then there’s a distinct drop-off: “I guess people get tired of it.”
Or maybe they’re just not aware. Crawford learned through fellow farmers that rhubarb season can be extended simply by pulling just a few stems — commonly called stalks — from each plant, in the same direction as each stem is growing to facilitate a clean break. (The standard practice is to cut all the stalks in early spring.) Crawford’s plants keep producing until early frost.
The variety New Morning Farm grows is MacDonald, which has stalks that are half to mostly green and medium-tart. “There’s no reason why red is better,” Crawford says. “It’s just more colorful. People are used to going for it.”
In fact, the farmer is over the whole strawberry-rhubarb love affair: “It’s so boring. There are lots of great things to do with rhubarb. It goes great with apples and peaches and raspberries. And it’s not just for dessert — try it with fish,” he says, and on cereal, yogurt and ice cream. It’s easy to stew and makes its own liquid.
In the D.C. area, MOM’s Organic Markets offer rhubarb via the Tuscarora co-op through mid-September; call ahead for availability. Balducci’s stores occasionally carry rhubarb from California, often greenhouse-grown; call for availability or to order it. Harris Teeter and Wegmans stores will carry “USA-grown” rhubarb for a few more weeks.