‘THE RHUBARB GUY’: Jeff Van Straaten helps harvest local flavor for Rhubarb Festival

On Friday morning, Jeff Van Straaten and his neighbor, Harry Wierz, harvested red, pink and green stalks of rhubarb at their first of three harvest stops for the day. Van Straaten leans down, pulls the stalk from the earth with a “crack” and tosses it on a pile.

After they are done harvesting, Van Straaten and Weirz smoothly and efficiently cut off the large rhubarb leaves, which are poisonous.

As a volunteer rhubarb picker for about five years for the Duluth Rhubarb Festival, Van Straaten knows his way around a rhubarb patch. Each year, he visits about 80 Duluth locations including Glensheen Mansion and St. Scholastica. Van Straaten said most sites he visits are community members’ houses.

Mary Schmitz, Development Director at CHUM, said she used to pick the rhubarb each year, but the job became overwhelming with her other festival responsibilities. She decided to hand the job to a volunteer.

“Jeff appeared. He just took it on,” Schmitz said. “He is the rhubarb guy.”

Jeff Van Stratten picks rhubarb from a garden east Duluth recently that will be used in Saturday's Rhubarb Festival. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
Jeff Van Stratten picks rhubarb from a garden east Duluth recently that will be used in Saturday’s Rhubarb Festival. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

Schmitz said about 300 volunteers help run and prepare for the Rhubarb Festival each year.

The festival gets much of its rhubarb from people who call in, offering their patches for festival picking, Schmitz said. She said she has no idea how much rhubarb they use each year, but they have never fallen short.

“We used to say ‘rhubarb happens,’ ” she said. “We don’t even know where it all comes from.”

The festival has had leftover rhubarb though. Schmitz said the leftovers are frozen and made into jellies and jams for next year’s festival.

Dave Kirby, of Duluth, donates a portion of his home rhubarb patch harvest to the festival each year. He has a trick to care for his rhubarb — natural fertilizer.

“The best thing to make rhubarb grow,” he said, “is 3 to 4 inches of cow or horse manure in the fall.”

Kirby rattled off a list of his rhubarb favorites Friday: rhubarb pie, rhubarb sauce on vanilla ice cream and rhubarb lemonade. But rhubarb strawberry pie? Rhubarb blueberry crisp? No thank you. Kirby is a self-described rhubarb purist.

“I don’t like to adulterate it with other things,” he said.

When Van Straaten harvests rhubarb, he said he leaves a quarter to half of the plant to help it survive the winter. Van Straaten also said avoid allowing rhubarb to flower because the plant’s energy goes toward seeds rather than growing stalks.

“We like to leave the plant looking pretty,” Van Straaten said.

Spring and any time throughout June are the best times to harvest rhubarb, he added.

Van Straaten uses two techniques to harvest rhubarb. He said he pulls the stalk and cuts the leaf or if he is working by himself, he cuts the leaf before pulling the rhubarb.

“I think it’s faster and more safe. It keeps my hands away from the knife,” Van Straaten said.

Although Van Straaten spends June harvesting rhubarb for the festival, he said he personally doesn’t like rhubarb. He enjoys meeting community members when he comes to collect their rhubarb, he said.

“I’m a stay-at-home dad, so I have the time to do it,” Van Straaten said.

Rhubarb is also really heavy, he added, and he is able to lift all of the donations. Van Straaten drops his harvest off at central locations, he said, where CHUM volunteers pick it up to put in jellies, jams and pies.

LeAnn House coordinates the pie-making efforts at First United Methodist Church for the Rhubarb Festival.

“Rhubarb grows very well in the Northland,” House said.

After picking a box full of rhubarb, Jeff Van Stratten loads it into his trunk. It will be stored and then cooked into goodies for the upcoming Rhubarb Festival. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
After picking a box full of rhubarb, Jeff Van Stratten loads it into his trunk. It will be stored and then cooked into goodies for the upcoming Rhubarb Festival. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

First United Methodist Church will make 400-500 pies for the festival this year, House said. Last Tuesday, she said they made 137 pies with the help of volunteers.

Each pie she makes for the festival has about a quart of rhubarb in it, House said, adding that the color of the stalk affects the flavor. If the stalk is red all the way through, she said it’s sweeter. Timing of the harvest also affects flavor and texture, she said.

“If it’s too late, it gets woody and tough.” House said. “If it’s too early, it’s too small.”

By Kim Schneider as published in the Duluth News Tribune

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