Rhubarb shrub, and prolonging the fleeting.
Adapted from: the drinking vinegar popularized by colonial Americans.
I suffer from what food writer Helen Rosner once aptly coined as a “paralysis of wonder.” Evidence of it can be found all around me: expired specialty condiments, saved for an occasion that would never come; delicate cookware from Japan, pristine in its original packaging; hundreds of vials of slowly-oxidizing perfume that I refuse to toss but also refuse to wear, because I can’t bear the thought of never smelling them again.
You could see why I got into preserves.
For a few years now, I have been making canned goods of different kinds to prolong a beloved and all-too-short time of year: rhubarb season. Rhubarb is the olfactory crossover episode of my dreams: fruity yet vegetal, tart yet sweet, watery and sharp at once. On the palate, it’s a taste that calls for more of itself. This year I made a rhubarb and pear jam and—finding myself worried that it would be gone too soon—followed it up with a rhubarb shrub.
The word shrub “comes from the Arabic word ‘sharab’, which means ‘to drink’.” You might know it as a drinking/sipping vinegar. It uses a mix of acids and sugar to extract flavour out of fruits and herbs, and in this case, helps me keep rhubarb in my life long after the crop has disappeared for the year. According to the New York Times, shrubs have their “roots in England, when vinegar was used to preserve fruit. Colonial Americans took the technique with them.” These days, they’re often served with sparkling water, or as part of a cocktail.
Colonial Americans may have popularized the shrub, but similar drinking vinegars have been around for a long time. As Atlas Obscura points out, “The Middle Eastern connection was not without reason: Iran may be the birthplace of the shrub. Medieval texts describe a beverage known as sekanjabin, which mixed sugar, vinegar, and fresh mint with water.” Elsewhere, historians point to drinks like oxycrat, a drink consisting of water, honey and vinegar from Ancient Greece, and posca, a water and vinegar beverage consumed by the Romans. (This has been rediscovered by the youths on TikTok—who of course assumed it was an original idea—as Healthy Coke.)
The popularity of drinking vinegars declined in the early 20th century, with the advent of soda counters and the introduction of domestic refrigerators. According to Wikipedia, 2011 marked their comeback in cocktail bars across North America. I see them as a great option for those who want a drink but do not want A Drink—or, if you are like me, a place to suspend something you hold dear, for a little while longer.
I used this recipe from This Healthy Table, which is a rhubarb shrub at its simplest. I have also added basil and mint in the past, to great success. Use it to make:
• Rhubarb Shrub Martini (CBC)
• Rhubarb and Roses (A bourbon and Aperol cocktail, via Serious Eats)
• A simple gin cocktail (via Garlic Head)
Until next time,