The English Are Coming! With Rhubarb and Custard!

Rhubarb and Custard

The rhubarb is a vegetable most often used as a fruit – in much the same way that the tomato is a fruit used as a vegetable. But unlike the ubiquitous tomato, rhubarb sometimes stymies American cooks. What’s to be done with this briefly available, bitter, even poisonous plant?

Well, there’s pie. In the nineteenth century, rhubarb was so strongly associated with pie that it was commonly called pie plant. And then there are the many variants of pie: crisps, crumbles, buckles. Rhubarb is so very assertive that it was not much eaten until and unless it could be sugared; prior to that, it was prized only for its medicinal properties. But other fruits have a mellowing effect on rhubarb’s harshness. Apples, especially, soften it without transforming its flavor. Personally, I believe that it’s a crime against strawberries to pair them with rhubarb – and it’s underselling the rhubarb as well!

The Skillful Cook, by Mary Harrison

Lately, in my idle moments, I have spent some time poking around on Project Gutenberg’s cookery bookshelf. I’ve found — what, with the distracting news out of D.C. and the semester’s crush of grading — that I’m in serious need of inspiration. And considering that my teaching schedule is such that most nights I don’t get home until well after my usual dinner hour, simply being in the kitchen at suppertime doesn’t really cut it.

So I’ve thought to myself of late: what would get my cooking juices flowing better than a collection of public domain cookbooks, mostly from before 1923, published as primers for housewives and handbooks for the help? What’s better than hundreds of recipes that I never would have considered making on my own, attached to a healthy dose of culinary cultural history?

Rabbit Pie

Rabbit Pie

I’ve been sitting on this recipe for almost a week, now, not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because I haven’t quite been able to figure out how to make it work for this space.

Here’s the problem: last week, with Easter close at hand, with Elizabeth’s post about carrot soup newly live, and with my recent enthusiasm for savory pastry, I made the decision that my next post here at Twice Cooked was going to have to be a rabbit pie. It appealed to my sense of impropriety — a rabbit for Easter! — and it appealed to my sense of propriety, too — a classic early-spring meal, timed just right for the early spring.