Asparagus officinalis / Rheum rhabarbarum

Category : Plants
Date : May 23, 2013

Springing up in the garden over the past week are two early favorites—rhubarb and asparagus.

In his book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons recounts his foraging at the age of 12:

During the next week we ate fresh asparagus every day.  We had boiled and buttered asparagus, creamed asparagus, asparagus on toast and asparagus soup.  I doubt that young people today can realize how good the first green vegetables of spring tasted in those days before quick freezing and fast transportation began furnishing us with fresh green vegetables all winter.

Gibbons references the process of quick freezing invented by Clarence Birdseye and the associated 18-item product line –“meats, spinach & peas, fruits & berries” launched in 1930 in Springfield, MA.  Women set aside as much food as possible to get through the cold winters, and must have been on the lookout for the first shoots of green and red in the garden. While the women of this colonial home would not have used Gibbon’s book as a guide to foraging, they might have referenced the 1829 The American Frugal Housewife for recipes and household advice.  Here, the author Child discusses:

Rhubarb Stalks, or Persian Apple

Rhubarb stalks, or the Persian apple, is the earliest in gradient for pies, which the spring offers.  The skin should be carefully stripped, and the stalks cut into small bits, and stewed very tender. These are dear pies, for they take an enormous quantity of sugar. Seasoned like apple pies Gooseberries, currants &c.,are stewed, sweetened and seasoned like apple pies, in proportions suited to the sweetness of the fruit; there is no way to judge but your own taste.  Always remember it is more easy to add seasoning than to diminish it.

Sugar did not come in plentiful, affordable 5lb bags, but rather on a cone, and it cost a pretty penny and was thus used with care.

“Conical molded cakes of granulated sugar, wrapped in blue paper & tied, as customary for maybe centuries in Europe, & in US in 18th – early 19th C. This one is from Belgium, but form is the same. About 10″H x 4 3/4″ diam…The blue paper wrapped around sugar loafs was re-used to dye small linens a medium indigo blue…Sugar nippers were necessary because sugar came in hard molded cones, with a heavy string or cord up through the long axis like a wick, but there so that the sugar should be conveniently hung up, always wrapped in blue paper…Conical sugar molds of pottery or wood were used by pouring hot sugar syrup into them and cooling them until solid. They range from about 8′ high to 16” high. These molds are very rare, especially those with some intaglio decoration inside to make a pattern on the cone…Loaf or broken sugar-A bill of sale form Daniel E. Baily, a grocer of Lynchberg, VA, dated 1839, lists two types of sugar sold to John G. Merme (?). “Loaf sugar” and “Broken sugar,” the latter cost half as much…Loaf was 20 cents a pound, and broken it was only eleven cents a pound. For cooking, the broken would have been more convenient by far.”

Child also discusses using the blue paper as a dye in her book*.  Nothing was wasted, forgotten or taken for granted in the frontier kitchens.

*The purple paper, which comes on loaf sugar, boiled in cider, or vinegar, with a small bit of alum, makes a fine purple slate color. Done in iron.

[Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus (David McKay Company, 1962) p.28-31] [Lydia Maria Francis Child, The American Frugal Housewife (A Public Domain Book, Project Gutenberg)] [Linda Campbell Franklin300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles, 5th edition (Krause Publications, Wisconsin 2003), p. 100-101]

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