WEEDS: Adventures with wild foods
In the Berkshires and beyond, there’s a movement of folks going back to the land.
It’s not a casual thing; these people want to connect with their roots. They tend to wear linen. Their reading matter has gone from Forbes Magazine to Grit. They’re drawn to blogs with names like Urban Homestead, or Voice From the Bush.
You can see the results around you. Your neighbors have acquired crocks, and bolts of cheesecloth. They are culturing cheese, making kimchee, juicing kale, grinding grain. The boldest are keeping chickens— and saving the feathers for crafts.
These pioneers may feel secure in renouncing convenience foods and inconvenient packaging. But they will find there is another venture to explore that is even more primal than these skills, and therefore more compelling: eating weeds.
It’s a pursuit with strong appeal to the adventurous, and one that is growing. People formerly satisfied with mundane daikon and kale are seeking out wild green plants.
Take dandelion greens. For generations a pest in respectable lawns, they’re coming up to delicacy status. They’re cultivated on local farms and featured at farmers markets, as well as Guido’s Fresh Marketplace in Pittsfield, and several Price Choppers and Big Y’s.
The crop is a staple at the Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington, where produce manager Jake Levin says they are sought by “the nutritionally conscious.” To suit this customer base Levin carries other once-wild plants in season: fiddleheads, ramps and stinging nettle, known for its high protein content. The nettles are so unfriendly they were pre-wrapped in plastic with a posted caution to drop them directly into boiling water without touching the leaves. “I like to take some risks,” Levin said. He found courageous customers who did, as well.
At the Pittsfield Farmers Market there are more choices. There Taft Farms of Great Barrington displays bunches of purslane and pots of an unusual choice, sorrel, which owner Dan Tawczynski has a personal attachment to. Chopped sorrel is a required ingredient in szczawiowa, a cream soup his mother used to make with eggs and mashed potatoes. “It’s a peasant soup, but Wheatleigh featured it once with our recipe,” Tawczynski recalls happily.
In fact, wild plants are served in a number of area restaurants. At John Andrews in South Egremont, you may find that your orecchiette is graced with a lemony-tasting sauce featuring purslane which chef/owner Dan Smith has picked just outside the kitchen door. He learned foraging while growing up on an Iowa farm, and adds wild things to his menus in season, mostly gathered by him.
Chez Nous owner Rachel Portnoy in Lee has created a recipe for einkorn risotto with ramps and fiddleheads which is wildly popular in spring. She also gathers the plants personally; but in summer when wild edibles fade or turn strong, her main foraging is for mint.
You may regard all of this as wild eating lite, and wish to take a more direct approach to the practice. The solution is clear. If you have a back yard: stop mowing it. There are edible plants there waiting for their chance to bloom, so to speak.
Take lambsquarters, long ago a food staple but taken out by its near relative, spinach. It will create a miniature forest on your lawn; and the long-despised plantain will spread anywhere it’s not bludgeoned to death.
Lambsquarters may need walnuts or something to give them panache; while plantains, it must be admitted, actually do not taste very good. But we’re not talking about taste as much as adventure, here; it’s a matter of determination and finding your limits. (And the more bitter your plant, the more phytonutrients it’s got!)
So figure on a learning curve in the quest to adopt wild foods. And once you’ve mastered these beginner greens, you may want to cultivate something more daunting, like curly dock— it’s hard to find a homelier plant or a more nutritious one.
Beyond dock, there are more rungs on the ladder of wild green mastery, and dedication can bring you to top. Proceed with confidence; you will learn to deal with plants that have been thought unconquerable, and discover ways to turn those limits around. Think cattails, and the uncompromising thistle — with resolve you can add these to your achievement list, and even introduce them to your less progressive friends. Keep at it; you’ll find resources you didn’t know you had.
Color folio of edible weeds: https://www.ediblewildfood.com
Classic book in CWMars Library system: “Wild Edible Plants of New England” – Joan Richardson 1981
Lambsquarters — https://wildblessings.com/plants/lambs-quarter/
Cattail breakfast tacos, and other delights — https://hungerandthirstforlife.blogspot.com/
“Wild in the Kitchen” by Ronna Mogelon 2001– Has 5 stars on Amazon