Take What is Bitter and Make it Sweet

Posted by on Jul 9, 2018

The artist and her rhubarb muse.
Photo credit Barb Paulini

When Barb Paulini’s great- great grandmother packed all of her most precious possessions and bid farewell to her native Germany, before she left her home forever, she took a splice from her beloved rhubarb plant and tucked it into her trunk. As she sailed across the Atlantic to begin her new life, it is likely she could not imagine that the plant would eventually create a link that connected five generations of women in her family.

The German woman planted the rhubarb in her new country, and soon it grew roots, as did the woman. This living link to her old home was important to her, and she took pride in the way the plant blossomed and thrived in her new land. When her daughter married and left home, she took a splice and gave it to the new bride to ensure she would always have a link to her home, regardless of when her roots took hold.

The young bride became a mother, and when her daughter grew up and left home to begin her own family, she left with her own splice of rhubarb. This tradition has continued for five generations and Barb is now the latest in this line of women to tend to the plant and harvest the bitter stalks, turning them into something she can share.

Paulini knows a little something about transformation. The local designer transforms line and shadow into images for her clients that help connect with their audiences. The busy artist teaches at MIAD, bikes, cooks and relishes time with her four-legged partner in adventure. This mother of two adult sons may not have daughters to share her plant with, but she has discovered a way to share her great-great grandmother’s treasured rhubarb with many.

Moving on from baked goods and chutneys, Barb has created a bitters tonic using the heirloom plant. Calling the concoction Rue de Barb, many a lucky local have had the opportunity to sample her creation as she continues to tinker with the formula. Five generations of love and effort has gone into the plant, and it requires a truly spectacular platform to introduce its tart and tangy flavor to the world.

Barb shared this, and many other stories with me as we sipped perfectly made, ice-cold dirty vodka martinis in the cool, soothingly lit lobby bar. Hiding out from the brutal summertime sun and humidity so high the entire world seemed to drip, we traded tales until our glasses were empty. Most of the people I interview I will likely never see again, but I know that will not be the case with this talented artist. Considering the number of shared interests we have, and our list of mutual acquaintances, it is a bit surprising our paths had not crossed before. They call our city “Small-waukee” and these encounters work to support that moniker. As I sit in my Narrator’s perch, scanning the room for potential stories, it is a delight to know that beyond an article, I may also find a new friend.

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