May brings fresh local rhubarb and thoughts of rhubarb pie. One of the first plants harvested in the garden, rhubarb, which is packed with vitamins and minerals, was a traditional spring tonic.
New England’s Shaker communities grew rhubarb for pies, preserves, sauce, tea, and even rhubarb wine. They bottled rhubarb chutney to sell. The prolific novelist and literary critic William Dean Howells (1837-1920) admired the Shakers’ expertise in growing fruits. In 1875, he and his wife, Elinor, rented a house from the Shakers in Shirley, Mass., for six weeks, visiting them often and attending the Shaker meeting every Sunday.
Howells had grown up in the New Church, a Protestant sect that followed the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Like the Shakers, Swedenborgians emphasized divine revelation rather than creeds and believed that the spirits of the dead are close at hand and that we can communicate with them. So Howells may have had a sympathetic understanding of Shaker belief in the spirit world and in divine truth transmitted by revelation.
Howells set two of his novels in a Shaker community to contrast Shaker spiritual and communal values with the materialism, individualism, and disorder of “the world’s people.” In his novel “The Undiscovered Country,” Shaker fruit expressed integrity: “They sat … sorting with Shaker conscientiousness and packing for market only boxes of honest fruit.”
Howells admired the Shakers’ generosity in feeding and caring for strangers without regard for their ability to pay. He described the tidy Shaker gardens:
“The canes of the raspberries and blackberries in the garden were tufted with dark green, and beyond the broad leaves of the pie-plant and the neat vines of sprouting peas, the grapevines on Elder Joseph’s trellis were set thick with short velvety leaves.”
Pie-plant is another name for rhubarb. I consulted a Shaker recipe for rhubarb pie that called for the stalks to be peeled before baking in a pie. If your rhubarb has tough, stringy ribs, peel these off with a sharp knife.
Shaker cooking emphasized fresh ingredients. “Do not cut the rhubarb until the morning it is to be used, or, if you have to buy it, keep it in a cool place,” Sister Mary Whitcher’s Shaker Housekeeper is quoted as having said.