I’ve been known to occasionally push the “in season” fruit envelope, promising certain pie availability before delivery of the very ingredient I’m seeking. When there is a vague response from the produce distributor, (“Let me put you on hold…”) odds are less than stellar that what I’m hoping has just arrived from (in this case) Washington state, has not.
In the week leading up to this very Sunday, there have been numerous queries about and requests for the very pie that says spring has sprung. Strawberry/Rhubarb has become the “It Girl” of Easter week pies, edging out coconut cream and lemon meringue by a nose. I only say this based on my own personal pie experience, having worked in restaurants, bakeries and on a farm that pumped out hundreds of pies every single holiday. Fresh strawberry/rhubarb season is strictly a limited engagement which contributes to its cult status. Knowing this full well, I still fall victim to the belief that if I want and need the fruit, it will be available. Somewhere.
Quoting Clare Boothe Luce, our favorite saying at home which I use repeatedly at work is, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Most recently I indicated to a favorite customer (there are exceptions to all retail rules) that I had seen fresh rhubarb at the market and was fairly certain it would be available for Easter. Of course that was an egregious mistake on my part because every time in the past month when I tried to order one case of rhubarb from our supplier, the wholesale produce deity was unable to commit.
Maybe it’s me or maybe it’s the noise of the convection oven, but there are times when I’m working that I swear I hear certain words repeated over and over again. Not necessarily around the bench, but up front, on the other side of the espresso machine. Words that haunt me. This week, the word was rhubarb. Customers were chatting between mouthfuls of scones and macchiatos, “I’ve ordered a strawberry/ RHUBARB pie for Easter.” Nodding in agreement, the woman in Audrey Hepburn sunglasses replied, “I wonder what time I can pick up my strawberry/RHUBARB pie.” I casually walked over to investigate the clipboard of orders for the upcoming Easter festivities. I had to wrestle it away from one of the baristas who was tallying up the columns. My right hand was cloaked in remnants of bunny-ear-pink royal icing which was now flaking all over the Boden raincoat of Audrey Hepburn. I grabbed the clipboard and discovered there was indeed a column dedicated to the very pie for which we had no fruit. Did I mention how much I love holidays?
At the end of the work day, I was still awaiting confirmation from the produce folks about the elusive fruit, rather vegetable that is rhubarb. “But I’ve seen it in the supermarket!” I started whining. They would neither budge on their indifference nor commit to tracking it down. Leaving me to fend for my rhubarb self.
Arriving at Whole Paycheck, I grabbed a hand cart and made a beeline for the fruit and vegetable emporium. I spotted the spring green and pinky-red stalks in the distance, but they were few in number. An affable fellow who appeared to be in the know was stacking a pyramid of avocados. Stepping back from the precarious Haas structure, I asked if there might be more rhubarb available. He shook his head and uttered the dreaded words, “It didn’t come in. Maybe tomorrow.” Aaarrgghh- I felt crazy coming on so I gathered the half of a dozen stalks and proceeded to the check out. It was while I was making the turn alongside the yams and sweet potatoes that I spotted another shopper with a bundle of MY rhubarb. A voice started playing in my head, “Unhand that rhubarb, Madam! It has my name written all over it’s poisonous leaves and edible stalks. There are people waiting for pies!”
Instead, I casually walked ahead, glanced over to the woman and smiled. “Making pie?” (Singular pie, not lattice-top for the masses.) “Nooo,” she replied. “Jam.” That was it, end of conversation. I had lost the rhubarb battle and felt I was soon to lose the war.
At $4.99 a pound, my paltry stalks weighed in at a mere one pound, one ounce, barely enough for a solitary pie. I drove home in silence, occasionally glancing over at my seventeen ounces of rhubarb.
The next day was a blur of macaroons and flourless chocolate cakes, lemon curd and baskets of bunny cookies. I looked up at one point to see the linen guy lugging in the week’s worth of kitchen towels and crunchy-with-sizing white aprons. He was followed by Mr. UPS who was delivering of all things, pie boxes and right on his heels, cases of milk, heavy cream and buttermilk from the organic farmer.
Somewhere between finding room in the downstairs fridge for the dairy and rolling out pie shells, I must have missed him. The Elijah of produce had slipped in when the front door was open and left a case of rhubarb on the stainless steel work table.
Every once in a great while, for just a moment, holidays cease to collide and decide to align in harmony. And the best part of the rhubarb windfall? There was now sufficient rhubarb to bake a birthday pie for my favorite soon-to-be 22 year old