May 1 would have been my late brother Tom’s 75th birthday. He is greatly missed by members of his extended family and many, many friends.
Tom was endowed with many talents, including an uncommon talent for creative writing. He also possessed a lifelong love for rhubarb. He combined the two aspects of personality in a short essay published in 2012 by the Des Moines Register, titled “Eating Rhubarb Pie, a Religious Experience.”
Tom’s wife, Vikki, gave me permission to repost it as my column this week in remembrance. Thank you, Vikki, and thank you, Tom. Here is what he wrote:
My religious preference? I am a rhubarbarian, a childhood converted to rhubarb pie.
A miracle led to my conversion.
I remember trotting into the kitchen when I was about 10 and picking up the last piece of pie off the counter. In a family of seven, the miracle was the existence of a “last piece” of any dessert. I ate it on the go. I had assumed it was an apple, but it wasn’t. It was new, it was delicious and I was hooked. I was a believer.
Rhubarbarism is not monolithic. Like many religious groups, we have our schisms. I am Orthodox: I take my rhubarb directly. Liberal rhubs add strawberries to dilute the acidity. Progressives even prefer a sweeter version with custard.
In pie, as in life, however, Rhubarbarians are ready to embrace the character-building tension between the bitter and the sweet.
It’s the personal connection that sets rhubarb apart from other garnishes. Unlike a blueberry or coconut cream, you often personally know the plants that provided it. The best rhubarb comes fresh, not from the grocery store but from your own backyard, or that of a relative or friend, loved and cared for by someone you know.
Not that it needs a lot of maintenance. A rhubarb plant requires so little. Iowa’s rich, black topsoil will maintain 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 said impassively. “I prefer sugar and cream.”
It’s worth getting to know the rhubarb people. After about 25 years in our congregation at Ames Church, I had persuaded several excellent pastry chefs to believe that rhubarb was an essential sacrament in any successful potluck. I knew I had made it 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 the streets to see our new hometown. She looked at houses; I checked the backyards for rhubarb. As long as you make new friends, I tell myself, it’s just as easy to start with those who grow rhubarb.
In the film “Chariots of Fire” about the 1924 Olympics, a British sprinter confides in his sister: “God made me fast, and when I run I feel God’s pleasure.” I don’t enjoy running. More and more, running reminds me of my own mortality. But I really enjoy eating rhubarb pie. If it was an Olympic sport, I would be a medal contender.
A feeling 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 crossword puzzles, watching football, playing with toddlers. These are the things that, when you do them, make you grateful for the times you spent. The measure is not how much you do them but how much you enjoy them.
For me, eating rhubarb pie is, indeed, a source of joy, and I am grateful to him. Is it an exaggeration to say that when Rhubarbarians eat a slice of homemade rhubarb pie, we “feel the pleasure of God?” Not for me.
May God’s part be with you.
And with you, Tom.
Rick Morain is a journalist and columnist for the Jefferson Herald.