In America, we sort of take for granted that it will always be there for us, but it might not..
Today we have choices:
! between commercial and organic,
! locally grown or transported in, often from very far away,
! supermarkets, natural food market or ethnic specialty markets.
Lots of choices. Some "organic" produce is actually affordable these days because corporate farms, as much as we may hate them, have been listening to consumers, practicing economies of scale, and have kept supplies in line with demand. How truly "organic"are they? That’s another story.
One source of locally grown, completely organic produce is totally free for the taking and Modern Americans completely overlook it — the weeds beneath our feet.
Emerson once said "Weeds are simply plants for which we have not yet found a use." The truth, however, is that most weeds are plants for which we have FORGOTTEN their uses. About 80% of the plants we call "weeds" are really vegetables, fruits and medicines that were brought here by immigrants from many cultures over the past two centuries. They brought them on purpose, because sponsoring emigration companies told them to "bring seeds of your favorite things, for you probably aren’t going to find them in America."
You walk over these nutrient-dense, tasty and incredible health-giving plants every day, but they are totally invisible because you haven’t a clue about what they are or what they are good for. The time has come, however, to learn some of these plants and how to use them, because the world is changing, and you may need them to survive.
At one time, wars, political and economic crises, terrorist attacks, and environmental disasters were things we read about in the papers or saw on the news. Today they are in our backyards, affecting us, our relatives and/or people we know. Prices of fuel are high and rising higher, food costs are increasing, and family incomes aren’t keeping pace.
When this kind of thing last happened back in the 1930's, people were better prepared. We weren’t a specialist nation then, where everyone was trained to do one job and to buy everything else they needed from others who also were trained to do only one job, like we are now. They all had vegetable gardens, and knew how to preserve food. They knew the values of the foods their grandparents had brought from the old country that now were growing wild in their gardens, and they used them. If grandma sent you out to get dandelions and you were Greek, you knew dinner was going to be "horta." If you were German, you knew you were in for a wonderful "dandelion gravy." If you were Italian, it could be one of any number of dishes, because dandelions were pretty much the Italian national vegetable– just about everyone ate them and enjoyed them
When the Great Depression hit, people who had been living comfortably all of a sudden had nothing to live on except what they had stored in their heads– that which their teachers and parents had taught them by word and example all their lives. Common journal entries of the day included such things as " You lived on what you had. If it was windfall apples that were lying on the ground or given away, you took all you could get and canned them. No matter that you ate apples all winter long. You were eating." or "The weed "Queen Anne’s Lace" was dipped in egg first and then flour and fried. It kept the family from going to bed hungry many times." or " The cellar had to be well stocked. Everything possible was harvested from the vegetable garden, picked along the roadside, the edges of the fields and in the woods to provide food for the coming months ahead." Lambsquarters ( an absolutely delicious wild spinach that was a major food of pre-historic native Americans) and dandelions were staple foods of the day and were the most frequent wild plants mentioned in journals.
Today, even if dandelions cover your backyard, you’d never think of eating them. If you want dandelions for a recipe you found in the newspaper or a magazine, you’d walk over the ones in your yard that are screaming for you to "Look at me. I’m here for the taking and I’m free," go to the grocery store, and buy organic dandelions imported from California for $3.99/lb.
My father died in the late 1940's and left our family with no money. A friend told my mother that we could "live on lambsquarters" until she learned how to make a living. So for the next six months, my brother and I went out in the backyard each morning, gathered the young tops of lambsquarters and brought them into the house. My mother would then make the most wonderful spinach dishes out of them. Even today, we purposely grow lambsquarters in our vegetable garden so we will have enough for our favorite recipes. We have never planted garden spinach.
Ohio Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher’s father-in law, Mike Zone, survived for two years in a German concentration camp by simply , whenever they were let out to exercise, stooping down, pulling the leaves off of dandelions, and eating them. This was something he had learned to do growing up as an Italian kid in Cleveland. When the Allies liberated the camp two years later, he was the only one of those who had been interred at the same time he had who was still alive.
The Gail family and Mike Zone lived by knowing how to use only one wild plant. Imagine how much more interesting dinner would have been if we had known five or ten of these wild plants that grow beneath everyone’s feet, all over the United States and Canada.
Ironically, those who remember the plants grandma used, now harvest and process them, and pack them in fancy packaging. You can find them in every health food store as herbal teas or remedies. I am one of those who does this. I make and sell Dandy Blend. Roasted dandelion and chicory roots have been used as coffee substitutes for centuries. Today, we combine extracts of those two roasted roots with extracts of roasted red beet roots, roasted barley and rye to make a delightful instant herbal coffee substitute that tastes just like coffee, but is healthy for you. It is available now at many stores and can be bought through Healthy Referral. I even tell you how to make it in my books The Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine and also in The Volunteer Vegetable Sampler: Recipes for Backyard Weeds, so you can make it yourself. Sadly, we have found that, even though it is easy to do, people prefer to buy it rather than do the work. So, ironically, profits from Dandy Blend sales have ended up helping to support my lectures and workshops teaching people how to eat weeds!
With so much uncertainty facing us today, it behooves us all to learn to recognize and use at least some of the plants that we walk over each day. So in the coming months, I will introduce to you the plants in the cracks in your patio and walkways, your vegetable garden and flower beds and your lawn. Once you know them better, your violets, purslane, lambsquarters, red-root pigweed, plantain, sorrels, dandelions and many others will become great and valued friends. By the time we are done, you too will know how to feed yourselves and your family from the bounty that surrounds you, much as I learned to do back in 1949 when I was 9 years old.
Dr. Peter Gail is Director of Goosefoot Acres Center for Resourceful Living in Cleveland Ohio.. He earned his Ph.D. in Botany from Rutgers University, and has spent the last 47 years studying how various cultures use backyard weeds as food and medicine. He is the author of numerous articles and eight books on edible wild plants, including The Goosefoot Acres Volunteer Vegetable Sampler: Recipes for Backyard Weeds, The Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine, The Great Dandelion Cookbook: Recipes from the National Dandelion Cookoffs and Then Some, The Delightful Delicious Daylily: Recipes and More, and Violets in Your Kitchen. He has shared his delight with wild vegetables on ABC-TV=s Good Morning America, Lifetime TV=s AThe Home Show@, and on the Food Television Network, as well as being Cleveland TV-5 AThe Morning Exchange=s AWizard of Weeds@ for five years. He founded and conducted the National Dandelion Cookoff for 10 years, which drew up to 15,000 people a year to learn more about dandelions. USA Today calls him the AKing of Dandelions. He lives with his wife, Wilma, in Cleveland Heights, OH. They have three children and five grandchildren. He was named Distinguished Alumnus of the California State Polytechnic University (Pomona) College of Science in 1979, and was inducted into the National Wild Foods Hall of Fame in 2000.
To order Dr. Gail’s books, book Dr. Gail’s program "Reconnecting Americans to their Wild Food Traditions," or to find out where he is speaking, visit http://www.dandyblend.com/ or call him at 800-697-4858.
Dandelions are inherently bitter, but the bitterness is easy to mask so that you can get the benefits of the incredible pool of nutrients, but not have to taste the bitterness of the substances that make them so nutritious and health promoting.
The secret is ‘sweet’. Serve dandelion salads with sweet and sour dressing or with raspberry vinagarette Cook dandelions in tomato sauces of various kinds– in lasagna, or rigatoni, or as a topping for pizza.
My favorite way to introduce people to dandelions is in a dandelion pizza sandwich.
Pita bread, English muffins, or any toasted bread
spaghetti, pizza or other Italian tomato based sauce
chopped up dandelion leaves right out of the unsprayed back yard
Toast the bread or muffin,
Spread sauce over it
Top it with a heaping pile of chopped dandelion leaves
Top that with shredded cheese, or a slice of any cheese will do
Broil or microwave until the cheese melts
IF you take a single leaf segment out of the middle and taste it, you will find that it is bitter. But if you chomp into the whole package, it will be like eating spinach.