Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Rhubarb Crisp

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I wish you could smell this.

By some trick of heredity, or upbringing, or brain chemistry, my greatest talent lies in finding the negative in what should be uniformly positive experiences. I'm generally on the hunt, when presented with a silver lining, for the dark cloud at the heart of it. Know thyself, they counsel. Well, here I am, routinely skittery when placed in scenarios with outcomes I can't control. Which is hilarious, when you consider that not only am I a writer, but that I have three kids, meaning that I can't really control anything in my life.

Case in point: yesterday saw the revelation of a good bit of news. My reaction? “Wonderful, here's something else I can lose.” My habit, in such circumstances, is to seek solace in things I can control: little tasks with pleasant or useful outcomes. So while congratulatory notes bounced across the internet, I cut the lawn, then trimmed a hedge. But there was yet some residual unease, so I needed something else to do.

Given that the rhubarb in the yard is now knee high and that I'd skipped lunch, I decided to bake a crisp. I offer the recipe here in case you find yourself similarly in need of a little thing over which you might hold some control. The result is pretty satisfying, as well as offering a great feeling of comfort. The yard behind my grandmother's house -- a long, narrow lot which grew wilder the further one traveled from the house -- had a big clump of rhubarb in it, and she'd bake dishes like this once early summer fell on Pictou County.

Here's what you'll need:

4 cups rhubarb, cut into 1/2 ” bits
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

For the topping:

1 cup flour
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup melted butter

I suppose you can buy the rhubarb. I've never actually seen it in the grocery store. Maybe at a farmer's market? If you're lucky you've got some growing somewhere in the yard. You want the ones with the reddest stalks. Blood red. Red as the lips of the one who left you. Grab them somewhere near the bottom and pull sharply until you get that satisfying popping sound. Tear the leaves off; they're poisonous, which is just one of the things I like about the vegetable we treat as a fruit. Another is that I don't have to do a thing to take care of it; it just shows up again every spring, gives stalk after ruby stalk of tart goodness for a few glorious weeks, weeks wherein I bake like a fiend, giving away crisps and tarts and grunts to friends and family until they beg me to stop.

I usually tramp across the grass which, during peak rhubarb season, is also strewn with the snow of apple blossoms, and stuff the leaves into the compost, then bring the good stuff into the kitchen. (I'm making it sound as though I live in the middle of nowhere, which I don't, and have acres and acres of land, which I don't. This is a bit of Annie Dillard's trick, of course, or a pale imitation of it: the illusion, without deceit or exaggeration, of wildness in the midst of sub- or exurban development.) I stand over the kitchen sink and rinse the stalks, then use my favourite knife to hack off the ends, samurai-style. Once they're cut into little nubs, mix them in a big bowl with the sugar, cinnamon, and flour. Then put that mixture in an 8” glass baking dish. Next mix up the remaining ingredients and spread them over the rhubarb. Place in a 375 degree oven and wait 35 minutes. By the end of that your house will smell a little bit like heaven. Pull it out when the rhubarb is bubbling and the streusel is a beautiful brown colour.

Let it cool a bit, but not much. You want to eat it warm. Get out some vanilla ice cream, if you have it. Carve up the crisp and drop it on plates, or just grab a few forks and eat right out of the baking dish. Oh, I shouldn't, someone will say. Remind them that food pulled out of the ground and prepared with love and shared with the right people can never be bad for anyone's health (unless they're gluten-averse, in which case GF versions of this recipe abound on the internet). Eat, and feel satisfied. The crisp pairs well with red wine. Or white. Or beer. Or a generous gin and tonic. Do your damnedest to forget whatever it was that sent you to the kitchen. The great thing about this dish is that it can also serve to console, should that thing you can't control break against your favour, so keep the recipe handy.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Andrew Forbes

Andrew Forbes’s work has been nominated for the Journey Prize, and has appeared in The Feathertale Review, Found Press, PRISM International, The New Quarterly, Scrivener Creative Review, This Magazine, Hobart, The Puritan, All Lit Up, The Classical, and Vice Sports. He is the author of What You Need, a collection of fiction, and The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.

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Go to Andrew Forbes’s Author Page