Constructing tradition: Rhubarb reflections

If there’s anything that has “tradition” written all over it, to me, it’s sweet rhubarb soup. Both my grandmothers had a couple of plants or “roots” as they’d call them, and we’d use every bit of the stems during the brief sub-arctic summer, until they started getting too tough sometime in August. Having rhubarb soup for dessert was a sign of the abundance of summer, when dessert would be served even on a Tuesday.

As children, as soon as the we had the chance, we’d steel a few stems, get a cup with some suger in it, and dip the raw rhubarb into the sugar and eat by the bite.

A dentist’s nighmare (or maybe that’s just public health dentists – private dentists probably see market potential), but sooo good, this stolen pleasure.

I tried it again, legally, in my thirties, after a break of probably 10 years. And much to my dismay, my taste buds had changed, and that the thrilling feeling of tart and sweet that used to run down my spine like a light electric shock, no longer did it for me. I was left with an aftertaste of regret and loss. I don’t know if the term “disaquired taste” actually exists, but technically I think must have disaquired the taste of raw rhubarb dipped in sugar.

Still, rhubarb remains a passion. I still make pies and puddings and cake and dessert soups and jam with rhubarb. This year I even bought a rhubarb plant to put in one of the huge planters on my third floor, sunny, deck-garden. I already saw myself as a carrier of centuries and centuries of tradition, a link in a chain going 30-40 generations back, – way back into the Viking Era .

That lasted until I started looking for some age-old recipes, and discovered the real history of the rhubarb:

Rhubarb is the plant name for the many different species (about 70) of Rheum. It originated in Asia, in particular China and Tibet, with the earliest records relating to its use dating back to 2700 BCE when it was mainly cultivated for medicinal purposes, in particular for its purgative qualities. It’s believed that by the 1500s it was being used in for its medicinal properties, there is one very early record of culinary use in Europe that dates back to 1608.  However, it was not officially recorded as a culinary plant in Europe until the late 1700s.

Due to the plant’s medicinal properties, the demand for it was great, just as its commercial potential. The Russian czar had full control of all imports of rhubarb from China, that all passed through the Chinese border town Kiachta, and smuggling carried the death penalty.

Considering how long it took all the other culture plants to reach the sub-arctic shores of my ancestors, after being accepted in the rest of Europe, my guesstimate would be that the there was no rhubarb to be had around Senja until the very late 1800s, which is just barely before my grandmothers were born. So instead of tradition-bearers, they were probably cultural innovators.

So I was wrong about rhubarb as a symbol of 1000 years of unbroken tradition, but I’m not the only one. While researching (or to be truthful: googling), I also found that “Rhubarb” is the title of  a Magazine of Mennonite Art and Writing. The name-choice can’t have been casual. More than any religious group I know, the Mennonites give extreme importance to tradition, and to living out the authentic message of Menno. In fact, most of their innumerable splits into subgroups since their origin in the 1500s, have been about tradition, accommodating of new cultural expressions, technology; or the refusal of anything of the sort, using the verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans “And be not conformed to this world“, as their rationale. If rhubarb has become a symbol of tradition instead of an innvation to keep away from, then the Mennonites probably constructed tradition unknowingly, just as I did.

In a very interesting book, the Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm + Terence Ranger, I’m brought face to face with even more astonishing revelations about presumed ancient traditions.

Hugh Trevor-Roper describes the creation of the Scottish “Highland” tradition — and we discover that the kilt was invented by an Englishman in 1730, while the so-called “clan tartans” are a nineteenth century invention!  David Cannadine’s explains how most of the ceremonial associated with the British monarchy, which is often assumed to be of great antiquity, has in fact been constructed since 1870.

Hobsbawm distinguished between three types of invented traditions which each have a distinctive function: a) those establishing or symbolising social cohesion and collective identities, b) those establishing or legitimatising institutions and social hierarchies, and c) those socializing people into particular social contexts.

So there is good reason to be suspicious of tradition, especially when tradition is used to force us to do or accept rules or institutions we have doubts about; or to mobilize one social groups against another.

In the case of rhubarb, on the other hand, I don’t need 500 years of documented tradition to fully enjoy my rhubarb pudding; and I feel every bit as connected to my ancestry, even if my grandmothers, or at most my great-grandmothers were the first to discover how to cook with rhubarb. Come to think of it, it’s sort of nice to know I’m part of a family tradition of cultural innovators and free-thinkers.


~ by Hege on July 1, 2010.

One Response to “Constructing tradition: Rhubarb reflections”

  1. Thanks so much for listing my blog link on your page! I appreciate it. I’m looking forward to wandering around your blog. 🙂

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