It’s summer here in Maplewood, NJ, and one thing that means for us is freshly cut rhubarb, which we grow around the garden. Rhubarb was a staple of my childhood; my mom grew it just behind the garage, parallel to the clothes line. The fat stalks and big lush leaves, with the smell of air-dried laundry, those clothes stiff in the best way ever, always meant summer to me. And minus the air-dried laundry, rhubarb still means summer, and it means rhubarb “bread” (at least that’s what we call this cake when we’re devouring it), rhubarb cobbler, and rhubarb muffins, which my nine year old and I made yesterday. I’m sharing my mom’s recipes here.
And home-made bread and home-grown fruit reminds me of my nine years in 4-H, which taught me so much about gardening, cooking, baking, and sewing. I wasn’t so good at sewing, but I sure did love baking bread. I liked eating it too. And my 4-H leader, Mrs. Shirley Nuessle, suggested one summer that I compete for the New York State “Bread” Award—that was just after my tenth-grade year. I didn’t have much of a social life, living a half mile from the nearest neighbor, so I started baking. Yeast bread. Lots of it. I baked every morning, letting the dough rise in the green Oldsmobile, nice and hot in there. Then I’d punch it down and let it rise again. I made two loaves each time, and we ate one as a family and I froze the other. By the end of summer, I had an entire harvest table of bread to photograph, cinnamon swirl, whole wheat, sour dough, English muffin bread—you name it, I baked it. My photos, along with an essay, earned me the title of New York State Bread Champion; check out my pin. And a trip to Chicago for Nationals.
I wish I could tell you I won Nationals, but the competition was stiff. The winner had baked bread, using a generator, for her entire town for three days, during a blizzard. My humble harvest table didn’t hold a candle to that, but I did sure did enjoy the bus trip from New York State to Chicago, and I made quite a few new 4-H friends along the way. (4-H: Head, Hands, Heart, and Health)
I still turn to cooking and baking to relax. My son and I quadruple that rhubarb recipe and mix it in a lobster pot (the only container we have that’s big enough). The smell of it baking fills the house, and I feel like I’m right back in Steuben, New York. And that feels good.