How Rhubarb Conquered Germany, Then the World

In the past month, millions of people have found themselves stumbling through the contorted and catchy syllables of a song about, of all things, a woman named Barbara and some rhubarb-loving barbarians who drink beer while getting their beards barbered. In German.

Or more rightly: Rhabarberbarbarabarbarbarenbartbarbierbier.

The hyper-compound words of the popular German tongue twister about Barbara, her “bombastic” rhubarb cake and her hirsute customers shot to inexplicable and extreme popularity this spring, a few months after a pair of comedic musical content creators from Berlin posted a rap version late last year. Their silly ditty has more than 47 million views on TikTok; for a brief moment on some online streaming charts, Barbara beat out Beyoncé. Beyoncé.

“There is a prejudice that, first, Germans don’t have any sense of humor, and second, they do not have fun, and third, their language sounds very aggressive,” said Bodo Wartke, the rap’s lyricist who, along with Marti Fischer, the composer, created the viral “Barbara’s Rhubarb Bar” tune. They spoke on a recent day in their Berlin studio as they giggled and tripped over their own stanzas — which exploit a feature of German grammar that crams nouns together into strings of syllables.

“And we proved them all wrong,” Mr. Wartke said.

But lost in translation, as global copycats stumble through the alliterative story of Barbara, the bar she opens and the pie that made her famous, is a quirk not only of language, but also of German gastronomical culture. Rhubarb is much more than a word in German that sounds a lot like “Barbara”; it is an object of springtime fixation, part of a nationwide fanaticism for eating a small group of particular produce exactly in season.

Put another way: Song or no song, every spring across Germany, rhubarb goes completely viral.

The vegetable (yes, it is a vegetable) is part of a trio of produce that includes strawberries and a particular asparagus varietal that peaks in early spring. Warm weather sets off a frenzy for all things featuring them in a country that still adheres to consumption along the rhythms of the seasons.

In the United States, the convenience of purchasing a summer peach and winter squash year round in the supermarket may have rendered the idea of seasonal produce nearly obsolete. But in Germany, the conception of each foodstuff as a limited-time-only treat is seen not as inconvenient, but rather, as a way to whet appetites.

Come spring, green markets are piled with rhubarb stalks, which are consumed as cake, pastries, preserves and, above all, in a fizzy drink called schorle, a spritzer.

Strawberries also share the fleeting limelight. For a few weeks, they glisten near the cash registers at grocery stores and burst from signs in shops that read, “They’re here!”

In curbside booths shaped like giant strawberries, strawberry sellers hawk cartons of fruit and pots of jam across several cities. They are courtesy of Karl’s, an entrepreneurial berry grower that capitalizes on the craze with a half-dozen — and counting — strawberry-themed amusement parks in northeast Germany.

While rhubarb may be enjoying its pop culture moment, the true star of the German spring is spargel, or asparagus. Theirs is a ghostly pale version of the vegetable grown under a mound of dirt to suppress chlorophyll production, rendering the plant mild in flavor with a fibrous skin.

During the season, Spargelfest, which semiofficially ends on June 24, multicourse spargel-only menus sprout at restaurants. One dish is on every last one: blanched spargel served under a slathering of hollandaise, beside a clutch of new potatoes, a slab of schnitzel and a slice of lemon.

“Rhubarb is very well connected to the springtime. It’s the seasonal food,” said Tobias Hagge, 43, who sings with and manages the Real Comedian Harmonists, who, like Mr. Wartke and Mr. Fischer, specialize in amusing songs — including a circa-1930 ballad about a woman named Veronika, whose beauty makes asparagus grow. (Wink.)

In its heyday nearly a century ago, the song, with its double-entendre, rivaled Barbara’s popularity, Mr. Hagge said. Today, it is his group’s most-requested tune.

“With Germans, we have a very, very unique relationship to asparagus,” Mr. Hagge added. “A lot of foreigners don’t get us.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon in Beelitz, an area just southwest of Berlin known for its prodigious spargel crop, nearly a dozen buses and hundreds of cars packed the parking lot at a roadside asparagus attraction: Winkelmanns Asparagus Farm.

Under the shadow of 10-foot-tall asparagus sculpted from sand, and past a machine called a Spargelschäler, where a team of women fed the stalks into gears that peeled, pared and shot the naked spears out the other end, visitors perused a seasonal produce extravaganza.

Some shopped for spirits with a curl of asparagus bobbing in the bottle like a worm in mezcal, or sampled asparagus iced cream. In a cafeteria beside a stand doing a brisk business selling rhubarb, strawberries and white asparagus by the pound, scores of people tucked into pricey plates of spargel smothered with hollandaise.

“They call it ‘white gold,’” said Mandy Töppner, 42, an executive assistant from Berlin, who was visiting Winkelmanns that afternoon, though not for any real love of the vegetable, she said. Rather, like several people interviewed, she attributed the fixation to something like a German asparagus biological clock: This time of year, it’s simply spargel time. “It’s just hype,” she said.

In their studio in Berlin, Mr. Wartke and Mr. Fischer struggled to understand that hype, and the hype around their own song, which has somehow become an international ear worm. Since its success, they have been invited to appear on Germany’s answer to “Dancing With the Stars,” and there is a grass-roots call for them to represent their country in next year’s Eurovision competition.

But all the singing about rhubarb appears to have done little for the plant itself.

Last season, Germany’s 734 rhubarb farming operations sold the smallest quantity in the past seven years, according to Lisa Kloke, a spokeswoman for Germany’s Federal Association of Fruit and Vegetable Producer Organizations. And she’s not hopeful the song will reverse the trend.

Two-thirds of rhubarb-buying households are over 55 — not the typical TikTok demographic, she said. “The majority of households will not be aware of the song,” she said, “even if it is currently viral on social media.”

Indeed, on his rhubarb farm in Walberberg, just south of Cologne, Stefan Grusgen, 50, a farmer who grows 1,000 tons of the vegetable a year, said he had never heard of the song until he was approached by a reporter. His children, he later found out, knew it by heart.

As the end of rhubarb season approaches, the singers have been hard at work trying to extend their moment; in mid-May, they released a sequel. But if it doesn’t catch on, there’s a backup: Come late summer, morel season begins.

Tatiana Firsova contributed reporting from Berlin.

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