When Jell-O Stalked the Earth

The regular suspects made their annual pillage of the ancient rhubarb a few weeks ago, leaving a few stalks for the family.  The thieves are two of Uncle Bob’s “acquaintances” who visit his garden every spring and help themselves to the rhubarb.  He doesn’t even know the name of one of the culprits; she just shows up and helps herself to the best of the rhubarb stalks.

The Baumer family rhubarb hit its popularity nadir in the mid-90’s when the women in the family were tired of the herbaceous perennial.  Nana and O’Pa were both gone and Uncle Bob settled into his role as manager of the family house and gardens.

That’s when the thief first arrived.  Seeing an opportunity, she seized her first armload of stalks.  She’s been here and gone already this spring, leaving the patch half bald.

Fortunately, Uncle Bob prevented the plants from going to seed by cutting off the flower stalk.  I’ve helped myself to some of the second-growth and made a batch of stewed rhubarb.

Maine cooking doyenne Marjorie Standish says in Keep Cooking – The Maine Way  “Call it rhubarb sauce if you wish, but have you ever noticed that a lot of cooks refer to stewed rhubarb?  Probably that is old-fashioned but it is nice, isn’t it?  In Maine, the double boiler method of cooking is used.  After all, it is such a simple way to make it.”

Her recipe is “the very best” if I may use Standish’s own style of writing.  She filled her newspaper columns and cookbooks with strong superlatives.  She wrote “of course butter gives the very best flavor,” and a certain cake was “the tastiest.”

As she suggests, it’s simple to make rhubarb sauce in a double boiler if you’re hanging about the kitchen for an hour.  Just be careful to keep water in the saucepan to prevent it from burning.

This year, I made my stewed rhubarb following Standish’s post-script suggestion to replace half of the sugar with a third of a box of dry strawberry gelatin.  I stirred it in after the sauce was complete and I’d removed it from the heat.

Popular gelatin brand Jell-O was a product of modern refrigeration and clever post-World War II marketing.  Standish would use it liberally in the salad sections of her cookbooks.  Today’s foodies snobbishly wrinkle their noses at the sweet, chemically tainted thickener, but it’s a pleasing addition to stewed rhubarb at a time when local strawberries are not yet available.

There was a time long ago when Jell-O quiveringly stalked the earth.  Now forgotten as a aspic additive like the fins on a vintage car, the thickener is more popular as a booze transport than a shimmering dinner salad.  Rhubarb thieves, food memory holes, and superlatively good cookbooks…I do what I can to keep the past alive.

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