It was about 15 years ago. Some friends and I were sitting in the parish hall at First Lutheran Church. Steve O’Neil had just been to a rhubarb festival somewhere in Montana. Suddenly, it was as if light bulbs turned on.

“We could do this in Duluth, couldn’t we?”

It would raise money for Churches United in Ministry (CHUM) by using lots of rhubarb, which often goes unused. Considered a weed or a nuisance in some places, rhubarb is an underappreciated vegetable. Could it be used, we asked, to benefit the under-served people in our community?

We could have a festival that celebrates rhubarb and at the same time benefit the many people who could use some help. “Yeah,” we thought, “there’s rhubarb everywhere in big bunches; sometimes we don’t even notice it. So why not take advantage of this abundance?”

The festival Steve attended took place in April. Here in Duluth, we decided, June would be better timing, when rhubarb flourishes in our cooler climate. We all agreed that people could have some fun with rhubarb, whether they love it or not. In addition, being that First Lutheran Church was an inaugural member of CHUM, we decided to go for it!

The first few years of Duluth’s Rhubarb Festival, we sold rhubarb pies and baked goods and had a coffee shop where people could enjoy their favorite rhubarb treat with ice cream and coffee. We began asking other CHUM congregations to help with the baking. It has only grown since then.

Judges Beatrice Ojakangas (from left), Jim Soderberg and Becca Bailey, all of Duluth, sample food during a cookoff at the Rhubarb Festival in 2011. File / News Tribune
Judges Beatrice Ojakangas (from left), Jim Soderberg and Becca Bailey, all of Duluth, sample food during a cookoff at the Rhubarb Festival in 2011. File / News Tribune

Over time, more congregations have jumped on board with the baking and many other aspects of the festival.

This vegetable is used as a fruit most of the time with a lot of sugar added. It combines beautifully with other produce of the season, such as strawberries. Rhubarb-strawberry pie is a great favorite, as is rhubarb custard pie.

Why not a rhubarb recipe contest? We did that for several years until the same person kept winning!

Then, we wondered, what else about this versatile plant could we celebrate? It is, we concluded, more than for dessert. Over time, creative minds contributed more ideas for rhubarb-based edibles, like rhubarb brats, salsa, jam, jelly, juice, snow cones, even rhubarb lemonade. What’s not to love?

In our effort to put together a festival, we figured that we needed to have rhubarb pie as a centerpiece product to sell. As more congregations got involved, we found that having more rhubarb pies to sell was becoming Problem No. 1: Everybody loves pie, but not everybody wants to make them — especially the crusts. We wanted the crusts to be healthy — and to buy the crusts premade was out of the question.

We went to work trying to figure out how to solve the pie-crust problem. That’s when the Moline Machinery company offered to lend us a sheeter for rolling out pie crusts. It is a machine that was designed, manufactured and assembled in Duluth. It operates a little like the old-fashioned wringer washing machine.

We researched a healthier pie crust recipe and found an oil-based shortening with a minimum of hydrogenation, which we buy through the local Johnson Bakery. With many volunteers during the first part of June, we make enough crusts for all the congregations that take part in the pie-making process. (This is with the exception of First United Methodist, the “coppertop” church, whose members gallantly make their own crusts.)

The Rhubarb Festival attracted hundreds of people to London Road in 2014. File / News Tribune
The Rhubarb Festival attracted hundreds of people to London Road in 2014. File / News Tribune

This year, we were charged with making 1,615 pie crusts that will be made into pies by volunteers in 17 congregations in the area. We have up to 12 volunteers for 5 days spending time in the kitchen at First Lutheran to make all those crusts.

It’s a challenge for sure to try to get them “round enough,” but we do our best. Mostly we have a good time together — and we take a coffee break when our backs insist we do so.

What do we do? Here’s how it goes:

We measure out 10 pounds of all-purpose flour, then add 4½ pounds of our chilled, special shortening, a cup of dry milk powder and ⅓ cup salt. It goes into the Hobart mixer with the paddle in place. Mix until the shortening is blended. Then we add ice water — about 2½ pounds of it, and mix until just the right consistency.

The next step is to measure out 5-ounce patties of the dough. Flatten and chill.

After chilling, we run the patties through the sheeter four times until the dough is the thickness needed for pies. We TRY to make them perfectly round. Doesn’t always work out. I repeat: WE TRY.

The flattened crusts are counted, packaged and labeled according to what each pie-baking congregation needs to produce their quota of pies. Then they are frozen and picked up by the

kitchen volunteers from various congregations who then fill the thawed crusts with rhubarb mixtures, seal and bake them. This usually happens a day or two before the festival.

From the safety of his mother Lindi Steffes’ arms, Teak Steffes, 2, reaches out to give Rhubarbara a high five at the Rhubarb Festival in 2014. File / News Tribune
From the safety of his mother Lindi Steffes’ arms, Teak Steffes, 2, reaches out to give Rhubarbara a high five at the Rhubarb Festival in 2014. File / News Tribune

Here’s the challenge today: We need volunteers to do various jobs that lead up to, during and following the festival day — always the Saturday after Grandma’s Marathon — this year on June 29. What jobs can you sign up for? Go to https://signup.com/go/USFmCpo or chumduluth.org. We need dozens of volunteers to do everything from setting up the tents, stages and booths on London Road to cooking in the kitchen and returning borrowed equipment after the festival.

Join us for food and fun on June 29, hosted at First Lutheran Church, 11th Avenue East and London Road.

Beatrice Ojakangas is a Duluth food writer and author of 31 cookbooks. She has been involved with the Rhubarb Festival since its inception.

If you go

What: CHUM Rhubarb Festival

When: June 29, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Where: By First Lutheran Church, 11th Avenue East and London Road

Featuring: Entertainment throughout the day, food, children’s games, crafts for sale and more.

RHUBARB RECIPES

Recipes by Beatrice Ojakangas

There’s more to rhubarb than just pie. The first few years that we had the festival, we ran a recipe contest. The recipes that were entered ran from appetizers to jams and jellies, to salads and desserts.

BASIC RHUBARB JAM

This is “summer in a jar” when you open it up next winter. I sometimes add a cinnamon stick or a vanilla bean to the boiling mixture for a great aroma.

4 cups (1 pound) chopped fresh rhubarb

2 cups your choice of berries or fruit (apple, banana, dried figs, strawberries, blueberries)

2 cups sugar

In a heavy 4 or 5-quart non-aluminum pot, combine all the ingredients.

Stir over medium low heat until the mixture becomes “juicy,” 5 to 10 minutes.

Increase heat to medium and boil until mixture is thick and jam-like.

Meanwhile, boil 4 half-pint canning jars with their lids for 10 minutes.

Ladle hot jam into the jars and wipe the edge of the jars to be sure they are clean to make a good seal. Top with lids

For absolute seal, place filled jars with the lids on into a kettle, cover with boiling water and boil 20 minutes. Remove from the water and allow to cool in a draft-free place.

Makes about 4 cups jam.

Rhubarb and Red Pepper Relish. Photo by Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune
Rhubarb and Red Pepper Relish. Photo by Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune

RHUBARB AND RED PEPPER RELISH

Spoon this mildly spiced relish on burgers or brats.

4 cups fresh rhubarb, cut into ½-inch pieces

1 large sweet onion peeled and diced

2 red bell peppers, seeded and diced

1-inch piece fresh ginger peeled and chopped

1 cup dried cranberries

1½ cups red wine vinegar

2 to 3 cups sugar, as you desire

½ teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon chili powder

1 tablespoon salt

Combine all of the ingredients in a 4 or 5-quart, non aluminum pot. Slowly bring to a boil, stirring constantly, then simmer over low heat until very thick. This can take up to an hour.

Meanwhile, boil 5 half pint canning jars with their lids for 10 minutes.

Ladle the hot relish into the jars and wipe edges of the jars clean. Top with the lids and rings.

For absolute seal, place filled jars with the lids on into a kettle, cover with boiling water and boil 20 minutes. Remove from the water and allow to cool in a draft-free place.

Makes about 5 cups relish.

Rhubarb Galette. Photo by Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune
Rhubarb Galette. Photo by Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune

RHUBARB GALETTE

This is a fancy name for a simpler version of a pie that you can bake without a pie pan.

1 prepared pie crust, 11 inch diameter (homemade or purchased)

4 cups fresh rhubarb, cut into ½-inch pieces

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

⅛ teaspoon salt

¼ cup cornstarch

1 tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

If pie crust doesn’t measure 11 inches, use a rolling pin and roll crust out to 11 inches right on a cookie sheet.

In a large bowl, combine the rhubarb, sugar, cinnamon, salt and cornstarch. Mix well. Pile the mixture onto the center the pie crust dough, leaving a 2-inch border. Fold dough over and pinch to enclose the filling. Cut butter into small pieces and scatter over the filling.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until crust is golden and filling is bubbling. Cool on the cookie sheet ten minutes, then slide off onto a serving plate.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.