Take Off That Mask and Smell the Rhubarb

Swine flu is not a food-borne illness, but many people are acting as though it might be. Worried cooks are getting serious about extra-crispy bacon. Ultra-hygienic countries like China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates have banned the import of pork from most of North America. In the United States, government officials are referring to the virus as H1N1 influenza, which doesn't have much of a lilt but at least avoids the accusatory suggestion that eating a ham sandwich will make you sick.

Many observers suspect the current import bans are a back-door way of imposing trade barriers, or an easy bit of political theater to reassure the constituents at home. Certainly there is no medical basis for restricting the import or consumption of pork products (ethical and religious considerations are another question, of course, and don't get me started on industrial hog farming).

But some good may come of all this bad news. Quarantines and trade barriers, whatever their reason, remind us of the importance of fostering domestic and regional suppliers.

There are many advantages to finding more of our food closer to home, whether it comes from our own gardens or from local farmers whose meat and produce doesn't have to cross the globe to get to market. Local sourcing means lower fuel consumption, less pollution, a more diverse economy, and greater freshness for the consumer.

Here's another virtue in the return to local eating: renewed awareness of under-appreciated crops that have suffered too long in the shadow of more glamorous imports.

I say we start with rhubarb. Local food is seasonal food, and one of the first crops of spring is rhubarb, that tart, red-stalked, perennial vegetable that everybody treats like a fruit.

Some people think they don't like rhubarb, but they just haven't discovered its charms. Discard the leaves and cook the stalks with sugar, honey, or even maple syrup. Bake a rhubarb pie, a cobbler, a crumble, or a clafouti. Make jam, preserves, or sauce for ice cream, puddings, trifles, or flans. Spice things up with a rhubarb chutney (it will taste great with that pork that isn't going to Kazakhstan). That will keep you going for the first few weeks of the season, until the local strawberry starts to appear appears: rhubarb's soul mate, the yin to its yang.

Once upon a time, rhubarb was a cherished favorite. Back in the days when eating local was a fact of life, not a conscious choice, every garden had a "pie plant." Cooks welcomed the first rhubarb as their deliverance from the dried or bottled remnants of last year's harvest.

When garden inventor Luther Burbank was promoting his new Crimson Winter Rhubarb, a century ago, he noted how growers were always searching for a rhubarb that would be ready to eat even a day or two earlier than existing plants, so great would be the demand.

Burbank also boasted that his newest introduction would be producing stalks "a full six months earlier than any other variety." There must have been something to the claim, because Los Angeles farmers were soon referring to the Crimson Winter Rhubarb as the mortgage lifter.

That was in California, where winter is so fleeting that some people consider the first day of spring to be when the rains arrive in November. In Chicago, where I live, there's little chance of rhubarb in December, but a recent spate of warm days and drenching downpours have already brought me glimpses of the crinkled leaves and ruby stems that herald pie season.

Another thing is happening in my neighborhood right now: the closing of a Chicago elementary school where a student is hospitalized with the city's first case of swine flu.

Nobody knows yet how long or how severe the outbreak will be. In epidemics, as in everything else, the rule is to think global and act local. Health officials are working hard to strike the delicate balance between useful preparation and destructive panic. For everybody's sake, I wish them well.

As we hunker down for what may be a long influenza season, there are a few simple things anyone can do. Wash your hands. Cover your mouth when you cough. Keep away from areas where outbreaks have been identified. Stay home if you are sick. But while you're at it, take off your face mask (it doesn't really do much good) and stop to smell the rhubarb.