Volunteers at CHUM’s upcoming festival say ‘Rhubarb Happens’Baking crews at area churches are preparing for the 8th Annual CHUM Rhubarb Festival, which will take place Saturday, June 23 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 11th Ave. East and London Road.
Inside the walls of “the Coppertop,” First United Methodist Church, Tuesday afternoon, LeAnn House could be found among a group of church members who were hard at work in the kitchen. Her red apron covered in flour, House grabs an aluminum pie tin lined with freshly made crust and dumps in rhubarb filling.
Then she pushes the pie down the assembly line, where another volunteer spreads butter over the top. House is leading just one of the many baking crews at area churches that are preparing for the 8th Annual CHUM Rhubarb Festival, which will take place Saturday, June 23 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 11th Ave. East and London Road.
“It’s a challenge making 400 pies in a matter of a few days,” said House of the Coppertop’s baking efforts. “We roll all our crusts, and we freeze the pies and bake them later on. But it’s not as much about making pies as talking with the people there and creating a community.”
Of the 38 congregations that are part of CHUM, many take part in collecting ingredients and baking rhubarb pies, together making nearly 900 to be sold at the festival. Other rhubarb goodies that are made for the event include muffins, crisps, cakes, jams, jellies, and lemonade.
“It’s an adrenaline kick,” said Char Juntunen, who leads the baking crew at First Lutheran Church. “We plan to make about 250 pies just at First Lutheran. It’s the biggest fundraiser, and to be able to do something for CHUM and the things that they do is a kick.”
Started in 2005, the festival includes live performances, a silent auction, and treats that are all made from rhubarb. The event was started to raise funds for CHUM’s food shelves, emergency shelters, drop-in center, and employment and housing advocacy.
“It’s a great community celebration of both our faith community and a crop of our area,” said Steve O’Neil, who came up with the idea of having a rhubarb festival after going to one while on vacation in Montana. “People are participating in small ways, but so many people have made it into a big event that is really appreciated.”
Though baking crews are busy preparing goodies for the festival two weeks beforehand, the process begins long before that with the collection of the main ingredient — rhubarb. O’Neil said hundreds of pounds of rhubarb must be collected in order to make all of the rhubarb treats.
CHUM collects rhubarb solely through donations, as bags of rhubarb are brought to its office weeks before the event. Festival volunteers also harvest rhubarb from the backyards of those who call CHUM, willing to donate.
“We also have a pretty substantial list of people who have rhubarb that we can harvest,” said O’Neil, also a member of the festival steering committee and stage show. “We know that the Duluth community is blessed with a lot of rhubarb and that it has been a big crop here. I think it’s a sentimental favorite and many people think fondly of it.”
Jeff Van Straaten of Duluth coordinates where harvesting will take place and on what days rhubarb will be collected. One of the biggest harvesting events for the festival took place June 9 at Peace Church, where rhubarb was brought in from various locations to be chopped and prepared for baking.
Festival volunteers have adopted the slogan “Rhubarb Happens” to describe how rhubarb seems to just come to them from various places.
“The way I understand it, rhubarb is a native species of the area, and it just pops up in, in places you least expect it,” said Van Straaten, who’s been involved in harvesting for two years. “I think rhubarb to a degree does just happen. It’s the first thing out of the ground in spring, which is always exciting.”
Once rhubarb is harvested and chopped, it goes to various churches to be used for baking treats that will be sold at the event. Many churches started preparing goodies last week, froze the items, and will bake them on the days before the festival.
Admission to the Rhubarb Festival is free, and aside from the rhubarb pies and treats, rhubarb brats and burritos will be available for purchase. A variety of outdoor booths and children’s activities will also be offered at the event.
“The process involved with the festival has been going on for a long time, and it just happens because people know what to do,” Van Straaten said.
“As I’ve talked to people and recruited and encouraged volunteers, people have come to believe in CHUM’s mission, wanting to support it,” O’Neil added. “It’s a big operation, and it’s pretty amazing.”
For more information on the Rhubarb Festival, visit www.chumduluth.org, and click the “Rhubarb Festival” tab at the top of the page.
Editor’s Note: Julie Krienke is currently interning at CHUM.