Essays - Summer 2017

Things Sweet to Taste

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Much to my regret, I never truly knew the woman who helped raise me

Courtesy of the author

By Leslie Stainton

June 5, 2017



Every spring, when the first stalks appear in the market, I buy rhubarb to make a pie. I follow a simple recipe, folding eggs, sugar, lemon juice, and diced fruit into a shallow crust. Bake for 40 minutes. Lately I’ve taken to growing rhubarb in my back yard so that as winter morphs into spring and summer into fall, I can harvest the plant myself, recalling, as I slice through the thick stalks, a woman I loved.

She is bent over in my grandfather’s garden, barely visible behind its white fence. With a paring knife in one hand, Carrie works quickly, severing the crimson stems near their base, gathering a bride’s bouquet of rhubarb in her arms. As she heads back to the house, she pauses at the compost bin, slides the knife once more into the blushing flesh, and severs the giant, mildly toxic leaves from the more desirable stalks. Then she makes her way across the lawn to the kitchen. It is early morning, still cool on this June day, but by the time she serves dinner several hours later, at noon, it will be hot and muggy, and she’ll need to wipe her forehead with the back of her hand before she enters the dining room, where I sit, 10 years old, waiting for dessert.

Beyond the open windows, the brown, listless Rappahannock River flows against a hazy sky. Water beads on our glasses. To move is to sweat. We wait at the table, polished to a gloss and topped with cloth placemats and napkins, porcelain plates, and sterling silver forks and knives inscribed with a gothic P, for Pettigrew, my grandfather’s surname. We’ve eaten roast chicken, butter beans, and the potato rolls I watched rise in a pan this morning beside the stove.

The gray door to the kitchen swings open, and Carrie appears, her hands full of blue plates. She sets one down in front of my grandmother, a second in front of my grandfather, then strides regally around the table, pauses, and lowers a third onto my placemat. Each plate holds a small triangle of crust filled with bright yellow custard flecked with bits of ruby fruit. I pick up my fork and spear a mouthful.

When I tuck into Carrie’s rhubarb pie now, 40 years later, I notice its sudden tartness masquerading as sweet. In parts of the United Kingdom, the first rhubarb of the year is harvested by candlelight in dark sheds. The practice supposedly produces a sweeter, more tender stalk, but isn’t it also a nod to the occult nature of the plant, whose sour leaves harbor poison? There’s a sorcery to this fruit, which blooms early in the spring and late in fall, preferring frost to sun, needing winter’s whisper to flourish. This fruit that is really a vegetable, an impostor, a straddler of worlds.

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Leslie Stainton is the author of two nonfiction books whose writing has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and  Michigan Quarterly Review. She is at work on a memoir about her slaveholding ancestors.

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