Weeds?

I grew up in suburban America, a land of manicured lawns and golf courses, where the dandelion is an indication of disorder and is thought to reveal a flaw not only in one’s housekeeping, but perhaps in one’s character as well. Maybe it’s because I never enjoyed mowing the lawn as a kid, but I have always thought it rather absurd, the lengths to which we go to achieve this tidy but rather dull aesthetic, but even still, it has taken some time to change my attitude around the concept of the weed. As a farmer, I know full well that weeds exist, and can cause real problems—at Skunk Hollow Community Farm last year, we did not attend to our weeds with quite enough urgency, and come the fall, they were far too big to kill with any of our hand tools, and I found myself literally waist-deep in weeds, pulling them by hand for the better part of a week. In some ways, though, the weed is an artificial concept, an artifact of human intention and desire. There are no species that fall absolutely into this category; rather, the term refers to any plant growing where humans do not want it to grow. There are plenty of plants that have been vilified as weeds, cast aside for the sake of tidiness, but the longer I am at Hawthorne Valley Farm, the more I am learning about the (sometimes unexpected) worth these plants have to offer to humans as food or medicine. One of the things I like best about living at the farm is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the food. I live with five other apprentices, and we share the responsibility of feeding a large group of ravenous, hard-working farmwomen, each preparing dinner one night of the week. All are good cooks, but each has her particular style, set of knowledge, and strengths in the kitchen, and I find myself learning almost as much over the stove as in the fields. Wild edibles have been a strong culinary thread over the last couple of weeks, and they often come in the form of “weeds” that I had grown to despise. Take the stinging nettle: I had cultivated a hatred for it last season, waging war against it at the margins of our plots, but this spring when patches of it started coming up here at Hawthorne Valley, my roommates (carefully) harvested it and served it up for dinner! As it turns out, nettles need only be boiled to remove their characteristic sting, and they taste more or less like spinach. There is something about this kind of resourcefulness that really speaks to me, that ability to make a meal out of something that can otherwise be so pernicious. Even the dandelion, that most iconic of weeds, has made it onto our table this spring in the form of salad greens, and while these greens were harvested from a wild stand, we actually seeded a bed of them to sell at the farm store. [Planting dandelions on purpose? How novel for my suburban sensibilities!] Of late, I have been getting absurdly excited every time I discover a new patch of them—my most recent culinary adventure is the making of dandelion wine from their brilliant yellow petals.

Dandelion patch in the shaddow of Phudd Hill, Sunday, May 8, 2011.

Quote of the Day: “Dandelion wine is the classic flower wine, made with the bright yellow flowers of the plentiful and easy-to-find weed. Don’t believe the hype of the manicured lawn lobby; dandelion is not only beautiful and tasty, but potent liver-cleansing medicine. Many other flowers can transfer their delicate bouquets and distinctive essences into wines, as well, including (but certainly not limited to) rose petals, elderflowers, violets, red clover blossoms, and daylilies.”—Sandor Ellix Katz, Wild Fermentation: The Flavors, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods

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