It began early this morning on Twitter, with a story from over the weekend by Ruth Ibegbuna, about a tussle she witnessed and then joined in with over discounted food, in a supermarket in Batley. And it included a particularly determined scrap over some Rhubarb Crumble, which led to this blog post, in the way that joining in with other people’s discussions on social media sometimes can.

I was led into the Rhubarb Rumble by my friend Heather Watkins, who I’ve never actually met, but now we’re co-writing what both of us entertain thoughts of becoming a serious piece of academic writing.

We’ll see about that.

Anyway, from now on, Heather’s the one in italics.

But first, Ruth’s original story:

“Just experienced a terrifying situation in Tesco, Batley, West Yorkshire. There were a small group of older women waiting near me in an anxious huddle. The air of anticipation was palpable, so I joined them to see what was happening…

A door opened and a nervous looking Tesco shop assistant wheeled out some final-reduction yellow-labelled products and then dashed away. The group of pensioners turned wild. Old ladies snatching and pulling at packets of chocolate eclairs and Scotch eggs…

I was somewhat caught in the crossfire and the whole thing was rather unseemly but there were definite bargains and I am a true Yorkshire-woman so I rooted around a bit and eventually found a rhubarb crumble for 70p.

As I held it aloft, preparing to leave the food-fight, a tiny old lady grabbed hold of my crumble and tried to pull it out of my hand! Bradford instincts kicked in. I respect my elders but no one is stealing discount pudding from me. No one.

We actually tussled a bit. I was firm and told her loudly I had it first. She said ‘But I want it,’ she already had about 9 other discounted things. Principles count. I held tight and in the end she cursed me and took some 17p Vanilla Slices instead.

I’m not even a fan of Rhubarb Crumble but there was a principle at stake. So now I’m sat alone in my house about to devour a 70p desert for four that I don’t really like.

Happy Bank Holiday! x”

Beautifully told, and I’m glad Ruth’s allowed us to republish her story here.

Anyway, this whole question of rhubarb? Why do people like it so much they’ll fight for it, and what is it anyway? Over to Heather, our just-appointed rhubarb expert:

“Turns out I have a lot of thoughts about rhubarb.  

As a metaphor for community, it’s great.  It’s rhizomatic, so grows horizontally underground, unseen.  It’s a perennial survivor, and it’s become so strong because it easily hybridizes, and actually likes cold wet winters.  But it also takes patience, because the fruits don’t really come for 2-3 years.

It’s fiercely local, associated with Englishness and the Rhubarb Triangle, grown in the 19th century in northern fields cultivated with “night soil” (hmm) and woollen waste from the mills, and in sheds heated by coal, then shipped to London (and Paris) on trains called “rhubarb specials”.  

Photo by Patricia Levey-Bennett of Homegrown Collective

But it’s also part of our connection to the wider world – cultivated as a drug in China in 2700 BC, coming along the Silk Road and reaching Europe in the 14th century via Aleppo and Smyrna, and then from Russia.  Rheumbarbarum or rhabarbarum literally means “foreign rhubarb”, and the version of the word that arrived in Britain, “rhubarbe,” was French and came in with the Norman invasion.  The blessed plant was once more valuable than saffron or opium, apparently!

It’s strongly associated with working-class communal life – you see it in Keith Waterhouse’s novel There is a Happy Land (1957) with kids running round among the rhubarb fields near Leeds, and Martin Parr’s photographs of the Triangle in 2015. As a staple of the allotment, it’s associated with practices where there is no distinction between economic and social benefits. Bourdieu would have said ‘objective functions, and subjective motivations’ (See I told you this was academic – Ed).  David Crouch has done some interesting writing on allotments, as an expression of people making their own places in everyday ways which combine landscape and culture.

And it makes a very good crumble, which is something which you don’t make for yourself, you make to share (ideally).”

Or scrap about in Tesco. Thanks for that treasure trove of rhubarb-lore though, Heather.

Quality work from someone who knows what she’s talking about.

Found in Liverpool town centre while writing this. For money off, from the home of socialist mojitos!
And here it is!

For myself I remember growing up with rhubarb, though at first we didn’t have it in our house due to an outbreak of ‘heatspots’ (whatever they were) which were blamed on some rhubarb an innocent auntie had fed us. We must have soon got over the attack because I then remember a childhood flowing with rhubarb, in pies or even not in pies, and mostly served with custard. At home and as an ‘afters’ for school dinners, I don’t remember anyone who disliked rhubarb. A subject we’ll be returning to later.

So popular was it I even remember a boiled sweet, a bit like pear-drops, that was called ‘rhubarb and custard.’ They didn’t taste anything like the real thing but I remember sucking away at them, appreciating the tribute of the sweets to their real-life betters.

“I remember rhubarb and custard sweets – they were kind of sour and the sugar cut the roof of your mouth, but somehow it was still completely worth it.”

Once Heather and I had got talking on Twitter and decided to write this piece of learned research I did what I tend to do, and made up a couple of plausible sounding historical facts, hoping that with some research they might turn out to be true?

Firstly that rhubarb is so popular amongst us working class types because it grows fast and was one of the few things left to us to grow and feed ourselves with after the Enclosures, when the rich cleared us all off our rightful countryside. Well, as we now know from Heather’s ‘based on real facts’ version of history and horticulture, rhubarb takes 2-3 years to grow, so not that fast. And while, I’d still argue, there’s link between growing rhubarb in the fields around mills and on allotments with the Enclosures, it’s tenuous at best.

“Although the plants take 2-3 years to produce their first edible stems, once they get going they are the first “fruit” (technically veg) of the year to ripen, so I think your point about being popular on the working allotment for that reason still stands. People must have been dying for the first juicy taste of the year.”

Second though, and perhaps more outrageously, I’d suggested to Heather that:

“Julius Caesar’s army marched across Europe on a diet of rhubarb.”

Sadly, they didn’t.

“I have tried to find a Roman connection, because I live on the site of a Roman camp and I love the idea of them stewing up, but all I can find is that they knew of it and its magical medicinal properties, but imported it from China, which is where the foreign bit comes from in Latin.  But we can always imagine the rest.”

Yes we can, and imagining is what it turns out Ruth Ibegbuna was doing when she got involved in the Rhubarb Rumble back in Batley. Because when she got the spoils of her righteous victory home, this is what she found it was!

Not rhubarb crumble at all!

Oh well, the whole subject’s entertained Heather and I. And, we hope, you too?

As for not much liking rhubarb? Well despite Ruth’s saying so (probably why some sympathetic supermarket worker slipped her the plum and cherry crumble instead) Heather and I are firmly agreed that though this ‘not liking’ is a theoretical stance some might adopt, it’s viability is as likely as my story about Caesar’s army!

So how do you like your rhubarb? With custard, anyone’s in particular? With cream? In a pie or a crumble? Or yoghurt? As juice? For breakfast of afters? Or something more foodie that even I haven’t managed to make up?

Your thoughts will of course add immeasurably to the academic value of our learned research.

The ‘Rhubarb’ contents of the University of Liverpool library. It’s not much is it? Help us add to this?

Heather Watkins, my co-writer and voice of reason on this, has lived most of her life in the Midlands and South Yorkshire, teaches at Nottingham Trent University, is interested in community groups remaking places, and loves a good rhubarb crumble:

“With custard, usually from Birds custard powder out of a tin, like my Mum made.”

Thank you Heather. And you too, for the Batley story and permission to use it, Ruth.

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place:

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  1. Mmmmm rhubarb! My favourite fruit (Yes I know it is a vegetable). It does grow fast – particularly when forced in heated greenhouses. I have heard folk tell of the sound it makes while growing and here’s the evidence –

    Because I have a lot of other things keeping me busy these days I don’t really miss having a large garden or allotment – except missing the spring bounty of rhubarb that lasts through to the summer. Enough to eat as much as I wanted and freeze for the rest of the year. Sadly it is only available for part of the year in the shops.

    As for recipes, I have two favourites in addition to the pies and crumble (which obviously have to be served with custard):

    – rhubarb fool – a mixture of stewed sweetened rhubarb mixed with whipped egg whites and whipped cream – delicious

    – rhubarb vodka – so rhubarby and delicious, not like anything commercially available. Sadly it doesn’t keep beyond about 3 months so just make enough for a wee while. A litre bottle of any cheap old vodka, about 1lb cut up rhubarb stems (uncooked) and 1/2lb sugar put all three in a sealed jar (kilner jar or something similar) make sure all the rhubarb in completely covered. for the first week or so tip the jar up and down once a day until all the sugar is dissolved. Then wait – about a month then taste. It is well worth the wait.

    I’m out to buy rhubarb!


    1. A public service Janet and lovely to hear from you. I can only sit here in open-mouthed wonder at any recipe that contains the magnificent instruction to use “a litre bottle of any cheap old vodka!” x

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