PEMBERVILLE — Millie Dierker bakes two rhubarb pies for the Pemberville Free Fair Freedom Post 183 American Legion tent every year, but her biggest secret is her cherry rhubarb jam.
Or maybe it is not so much of a secret. It seems everyone in Pemberville has known about the jam for decades.
Dierker, a retired registered nurse, cooks and freezes between 40 to 45 jars of jam each summer, then gives them away as gifts. She said she has been making the jam for about 30 years.
It has gotten to the point that friends and family — including three children, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildrn — say all they want from Dierker at Thanksgiving and Christmas is her rhubarb or strawberry-rhubarb pies or cherry rhubarb jam, depending on the preference.
“I discovered a lot of people love rhubarb,” Dierker said. “I’ve been making it so many years, I can’t even tell you, but a lot of years.”
The urban myth is that rhubarb is poisonous if not cooked. It is the plant’s leaves that are poisonous. The stalk can even be eaten raw.
“My grandson had a little patch behind their garage, and he’d eat it raw. No, it doesn’t make you sick, but they’ve always said that rhubarb leaves were poisonous,” Dierker said.
It is also one of those vegetables that can be considered fruit, according to some classifications, and it is prepared as a fruit. Native to the Orient, it has been used for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years.
The Dierker family rhubarb tradition began five decades ago when she and her late husband Bob moved from their home on Front Street to another home on Front Street, where she still resides.
Upon arriving, they noticed a small rhubarb patch in the backyard.
Right away Bob began caring for the patch, watering, weeding and bringing in more rhubarb until it grew to about 6 feet in diameter.
“When we first bought this place there was just a little patch, but Bob added to it,” Dierker said.
“If you wanted to keep them on, Bob always watered and weeded it a little bit,” she said. “I think there is a time, too, when it must remain dormant because even though he would water it sometimes, when it was hot it would get pithy. You harvest it in early May.
“I loved to go out there and look to see when the buds are starting to come up. Pretty soon you look out the back door and there you see some leaves forming. I think the end of (the harvest) would have to be the end of June.”
Harvesting rhubarb is not easy. Dierker compared it to harvesting a celery stalk, potatoes, or other vegetable rooted in the ground.
“You have to pick out a clump of it and then you pull out the clump. When you pull out rhubarb, you have to get way down and pull it right from the stalk,” Dierker said.
It takes 5 cups of rhubarb for the jam, but Dierker uses all the rhubarb from her backyard.
“Then, what’s coming up next in my rhubarb patch I cut up and save it for my pies,” Dierker said. “I used every bit that I had. I froze some for pies because I can do that.”
Rhubarb is also served in sweet soups, sauces, tarts, cocktails and even rhubarb wine. However, Dierker has another specialty — rhubarb cake.
“It takes a lot of preparation, and that includes a 10-ounce bag of miniature marshmallows,” Dierker said. “That is so good, though. When I make that, I have of a piece of that for breakfast as well.
“I have the pie, too, but now the kids give me heck for it. It is fruit except for all the sugar that goes with it.
“We make cakes in the summer because a lot of my friends have found out I like rhubarb, and it’s become a lot of people’s favorite desert — the pie or the cake, and usually the jam. They are all fun to make but they take time.”
Cherry Rhubarb Jam
4 cups rhubarb, diced
1½ cups sugar
1 small (3 oz.) box of cherry Jell-o
1 20 oz. can cherry pie filling
½ teaspoon almond extract
Mix rhubarb and sugar. Marinate 1½ hours. Bring to boil and boil 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Add Jell-o. Stir well. Add pie filling and extract. Fill containers. When cool, put in freezer.