Digging in the freezer I contemplated making some of what we call “that rhubarb stuff.” I thought, too, about an article Peter Schjeldahl wrote in The New Yorker, describing the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans’s work process and quoting him: “It’s like I don’t know what I’m doing but I know how to do it, and it’s very strange.”

And then Schjeldahl says: “Now, that – uncertain ends, confident means – is about as good a general definition of creativity as I know.”

I wrote it down, always collecting definitions of art and creativity I encounter – and begin to think it a perfect definition of how a good cook goes about making food. Obviously good cooks know exactly the ends they will achieve most of the time. But a cook of “confident means” creates something out of what’s in the cupboard without fear of “uncertain ends.” Cookbooks are inspiration and guidebook but not rulebook. (My husband’s chef instructor is really like this.)

When I attended an English university for a year in the middle of my college career, I lodged with the Rev. Seal and his wife. They lived in The Rectory in a town by the sea in the north of England – a huge house (to my Alaska eye), right out of an English novel.

I loved pretty much everything about that year – and a pleasure I hadn’t expected was Mrs. Seal’s food. She made all her own soup, bread, granola, and as I remember, something like the rhubarb stuff, but with a more elegant name – compote or preserve.  I suspect she made it in its season.

Storage in our small freezer runs the season backward: blueberries, red berries, and then rhubarb. We’ve been profligate with the blueberries in the front. Now it’s time to dig back to a rhubarb package, add a couple of the strawberries and a stored local Liberty apple, a little honey or maple syrup, and cook that sweet-tart rhubarb treat – specially since I just saw rhubarb emerging in the garden.

Mrs. Seal also preserved marmalade from Seville oranges – a once a year winter event. I recently asked her daughter via email if they still make marmalade  – and they do. Mrs. Seal is 96, soon to be 97.

Now this is stretch that might leave Peter Schjeldahl shaking his head, but maybe a lot of life meets his definition of creativity: “uncertain ends, confident means.” Who knew all those years ago, when the Seals warmly welcomed an unknown American, that I’d always think so fondly of them when rhubarb sweetens our oatmeal, on a morning in winter.

2 thoughts on “Rhubarb

  1. Katy – How timely that you write about rhubarb. Just yesterday I noticed ours is up about 2″…and I thought of you!

    My mom, whose rhubarb plants in Anchorage grew to enormous proportions, used to make “that rhubarb stuff” and I remember it fondly. Much as I enjoy cooking I never tried to duplicate it though. Some things are much more delicious and satisfying in my memory.


  2. I saved some rhubarb, carefully cut into little cubes, in the freezer, thinking maybe it would be more appealing to me in the winter than it was in the summer (when I was not moved to make any stuff at all with it). Maybe my ends were too overambitious, because it looked so awful in those little baggies all icy and full of sour power that I banished it to the trash. My creativity goes only so far!

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