Food Talk

Riding for Rhubarb

Written by Susie Petitti Tilton of Sweetie Petitti

I remember that July morning like it was yesterday. Everyone is quiet in the morning, and the ground was cool and damp so as the sun rose there was a fog that blanketed the blacktop road. For as far as the eye could see was a line of cyclists. Most clad in the traditional spandex bike shorts, but very few could be classified as cyclists as we know them. College kids, moms, grandpas and grandmas, dads, every age, every shape, from about every state and many foreign countries, even a few famous faces.
It is probably no later than 7:00 am, and suddenly the smoky smell drifts towards me. From a distance I can see the old converted school bus and can hear the “Pork Chop Man” and his familiar call of poooorrrrk choooops. As we ride nearer there are at least 20 people in line and we pull off as well. Who wouldn’t want a fresh grilled Iowa chop for breakfast?

This is RAGBRAI. The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, and the summer of 2009 is the 37th year. In a nutshell it is 500 miles across Iowa, 10,000 riders and support people, a new route every year, but always beginning with dipping our back tires in the Missouri River in Western Iowa and 6 days later dipping the front tire in the mighty Mississippi in Eastern Iowa, and along the way experiencing the best food to be had on 2 wheels.

The Pork Chop Man was a staple during many of the 5 years I’ve done this ride. It’s been a few years since I have had the opportunity to go, but I can tell you no pork chop compares to the one I had that morning, hot off the grill, sprinkled with seasoned salt, wrapped in wax paper and eaten standing up. I probably only ate 1 or 2 pork chops during the week long ride, mostly because we hated waiting in line, but we looked for him every day, sometimes seeing him twice on that day’s route. Pork chops weren’t the only breakfast of champions found in Iowa. The route changes every year, and towns campaign to be a part of it. A town passed thru in the first 15 miles of the day is generally a breakfast mecca. Home made cinnamon rolls, muffins, scones, breakfast burritos and lots of coffee and bananas, compliments of every nearby church, the K of C, the Jaycees, the Cub Scouts. Every organization knows there is a lot of cash to be made. When I wasn’t having hot grilled pork at 7:00 am, there was only one other thing I was looking for. Rhubarb Pie. This is where I fell in love with rhubarb. Those sweet little farm ladies bake for weeks in anticipation of the riders. We could wipe out a small community in hours, almost like a plague of locusts. Tables filled with pie slices on little white plates disappeared before most people were even out of bed.

Depending on the length of the day’s route, lunch could be a mere 15 miles away. The lunch towns were usually a little bigger, and the streets would be blocked off to all traffic but bikes. Thousands of them leaned against trees and buildings and riders strolled the streets talking to locals and looking for the best food. Baked potato bars, walking tacos, an Iowa phenomenon, (a small bag of Fritos, hot taco meat, shredded cheese and lettuce, eaten out of the bag), turkey legs and burgers and brats would be found all around the town square where there was usually a band and a beer tent. There was always a stand with fresh grilled corn on the cob, husks charred and pulled back, dipped in butter melted in a coffee can, speckled with seasoned salt. Usually the field it was picked from was within miles. And of course the pie. Again, tables and tables of it. Most riders would spend an hour or more resting in the lunch town enjoying the community of locals and riders and live music. It was in towns like this that I learned to dance the Electric Slide.

And then you push on. The problem with pie and beer at lunch is that you seem to get a little tired in the afternoon. So as the day wears on and the line of bikes thin, you keep your eyes peeled for the ultimate farm party. Somewhere you are bound to find a compound with sand volleyball, maybe a trampoline, mud slides, another beer tent and of course the food. If you’re lucky you’re close to LeMars, IA and the Blue Bunny truck is there handing out freebies! I usually go for the ice cream or Rice Crispy Treats, I don’t know why Rice Crispy Treats taste better outside on a farm, but you’ll have to trust me on this one.

As we would ride into our overnight town we would search for the sign from our sagger. That’s the poor soul who drives from town to town with all the tents, bags and coolers. My dad was the best sagger ever. The tent would be up, there would be cheese, venison sausage, margaritas on the rocks, and chips and salsa. He would have scoped out the shower situation (usually in a car wash or cattle barn) and the facilities. After appetizers and a shower we would hit the town. This was where we would look for the church dinners and the best food of the day. For under $10 we could get a hot meal, usually pasta or chicken, salad, tea, coffee and of course pie. Church pie was the best. If you arrived early, you could find rhubarb, but it went fast. Sometimes grape pie, always apple, peach, blueberry and a few cream pies. We usually sat at long community tables in cool church basements and mingled with the locals. Dinner could be hours long if the company were pleasant. Then of course back to the tents for a night’s rest. We slept on football fields, school lawns and fair grounds. We survived tornados, well water showers (always 55 degrees) and partying college kids. We would sleep like a log only to do it all again tomorrow.

After 6 days of this, amazingly, you don’t lose a pound or gain an ounce. There are dozens of RAGBRAI bloggers and reporters and the pie chase has become rather legendary and Iowans have embraced the pie love of the riders. The seasoned riders and bakers know what to look for on those pie tables. The crust should be crumbly and maybe show the fork tines imprint or be irregular so you know it is home made. Avoid perfect pie crust at all costs. When these women are baking a dozen pies from scratch the crust doesn’t look nearly as good as the one they put in to the county fair. Rhubarb is always the first to go, always. You can pick up an apple pie anywhere, but rhubarb is seasonal and geographic, and most people don’t grow up eating it so it is a treat in Iowa. It was always my first choice.
So what is it about rhubarb? Maybe that it’s a vegetable, you can’t buy it in a can, no school cafeteria ever offered it, and most city kids never get a taste, unless of course their parent is a foodie. It is tart and slightly sweet. The large blades or leaves of the plant are both beautiful and poisonous which is why you’ll never see them attached at the grocer. The season is winding down now, but it starts in May. Before most vegetation has poked through the chilly earth in Iowa, Michigan and Canada, rhubarb is busting out. My sister has 500 rhubarb plants on her Iowa farm, part of a retirement project. Pie is not what she is after, but wine, rhubarb wine. They are to compliment her newly planted vineyard of French grapes. Sounds like another very good reason for me to head back to Iowa with my bike.

Deep Dish Rhubarb Berry Pie

Adapted from Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax

Pie dough for a 2 crust pie

4 cups chopped rhubarb (about 2 pounds)
1 cup blueberries
1 cup strawberries, quartered
1½ cups sugar
⅓ cup cornstarch
¼ teaspoon almond extract
½ teaspoon cinnamon
pinch salt

Toss fruit with ½ cup sugar and set aside. Divide the pie dough into 2 portions and roll out the bottom piece to cover the bottom and sides of dish. You can use an 8×8, I use an 11×7. Leave about ¾” overhang around edges. Roll out remaining dough into a rectangle to cut your lattice pieces. Place the crusts in fridge to chill about 15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375° F. In a small bowl, whisk the cornstarch, cinnamon, sugar and salt. Add the almond extract to the fruit, and then add the dry ingredients and toss to coat. Brush crust with egg white and fill with fruit. Lattice the top crust and brush with egg white and sprinkle with coarse sugar. Cover loosely with foil, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake for another 30-40 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm or a room temperature.

User offline. Last seen 7 years 19 weeks ago. Offline

Joined: 04/09/2009

I live in Iowa, RAGBRAI is a huge thing here. I never thought of making pies to sell along the route. Many times I have been fortunate enough to be close to the starting place.

I make killer pies if I don’t say so myself. No rhubarb this year, but I’ll be all over it for next year. I’m in the SW corner. I have no idea the best place to set up to share my goodies. I guess I’ll have a whole year to figure it out.

sweetiepetitti's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 42 weeks ago. Offline

Joined: 03/13/2009

Anywhere the route passes, and it is great if you can get a spot with shade and chairs for riders to take a load off. You should try and hit a town or 2 during the ride this year and see how it works. You won’t get rich, but you will meet the coolest people. BTW, my favorite routes were the ones that started south and went thru Madison County….

riteofcake's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 50 weeks ago. Offline

Joined: 03/07/2009

i love rhubarb and i love your article! what a fun way to spend some of your summer – i wish we had some bike ride as epic in illinois (at least one that i knew about…)

every summer is full of rhubarb at home and my whole family anxiously waits for the day when our little rhubarb plant is ready to be eaten, sometimes cooked in rhubarb upside-down cake, sometimes in rhubarb-strawberry pie, and sometimes just raw.

it makes me love the midwest just that much more Smile

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