by Francesca Gesualdi
Today, even in the concrete jungle where the green is fading fast, wildcrafting is a sexy activity to indulge in. We nouveau gourmets melt like fondue at mere mention of a wildcrafted edible; the pricier, the more rustic, the sexier. Forty years ago, in the half developed enclave of a metropolis swelling with an influx of immigrants and their immigrant ways, harvesting the wild edibles at our doorstep was something we did as inconspicuously as possible. It was wiser not to draw attention to our backward, old world ways. though we didn’t call it that then. It was embarrassing to be caught wildcrafting.
When the wild asparagus that nestled in the tall grasses on the edge of the abandoned rock quarry bordering our lane offered its fullness and beauty to late spring air, my father would outfit me with scissors and a bag inside my jacket pocket. In the late dusk he’d send me out, whispering, “Remember, you’re just looking for your Frisbee, if anybody asks.”
I could make harvesting wild asparagus child’s play. For the very next step would be a family Sunday breakfast of lightly sautéed wild asparagus omelet with crusty bread and home cured prosciutto on the side that I would make myself and serve to my parents.
I had my own reasons for being good at harvesting unseen, for I did not want to share my patch with prying eyes, small and precious as it was.
My mother, on the other hand, didn’t give a compost bucket’s damn about other people’s judgment. She harvested under the full glory of the light of day, her upper torso bent to the ground like the generous branch of a weeping willow from the trunk of her body.
She did not have the luxury of twilight cover, or of turning the task over to me. Her wild green of choice was the elegant, young dandelion. Its leaves spread close and low; at dusk they would blend with the groundcover and be harder to spot. Nor did I have the experience to tell the real dandelion from its hairy cousin. I could not tell the tender bitter leaf from the one just gone too woody. Nor could I be trusted to dig up a good root without breaking through the rough brown skin of it and discharging the milky white blood she used for medicinals.
Nor would I have the patience to pick for hours and fill two huge bags to carry home, one on each side of her for balance. It was more than we could ever eat, but enough to make the rounds of friends in the extended neighborhood, where she would trade her dandelions greens and flowers (one of her friends made dandelion wine) for conversation and other delights, perhaps a dainty glass of home made “liquore.”
Besides, there was no competition for the dandelions like there was for the asparagus. Locals considered it a nuisance, a persistent weed, its wide proliferation due to the fact that it blooms all year round. It’ s a joke to pick a weed.
One afternoon, riding the school bus on a field trip with my classmates, looking out the window I saw a figure bent willow-like over the short grasses in a wide meadow stretching back from the road. It seemed like the figure was tending the earth more pulling something out of it.
“Hey, isn’t that your mother?,” Daria shouted at me from across the bus.
Yes, that would be her, I quickly realized, harvesting wild dandelions in an area where there was no debris, no foot traffic, damned it be in the light of day under the gaze of a busload of school children, her daughter among them. It wasn’t cool to pick dandelions, then. You were branded as a grass eater, a peasant, an immigrant who couldn’t assimilate. You weren’t going to get elected to the school council if your mother picked dandelions.
Daria lived across the street from me and on the surface of it we had much in common, same age, same language, same province back in the old country. I had a small fascination with her for her eyes were the color of young asparagus tips, and she was brash and popular.
In truth, Daria and I were almost opposites. Where she was willful and loud, I was cautious and quiet. She wanted to lead; where she would lead to she could not say. I thought it far less tedious and more agreeable to make people laugh than to try to lead them anywhere. Perhaps the only thing Daria and I had in common was that both our mothers harvested wild dandelions, sometimes together.
Kids gathered to look out the window on my side of the bus.
“What’s your mother doing?”
“Is she crazy, or something?”
I looked over Daria’s shoulder out the window on the other side of the road and there was Daria’s mother, too, looking up suddenly and seeing the school bus go by.
Daria followed my gaze and turned red, but everyone was too busy on my side of the bus to take notice.
I smiled at her but did not give her away.
Instead, I turned to the crowd on my side of the bus, “Don’t you silly-billies know anything?” I chided. “She’s ridding the area of an invasive species. It’s a national threat. She’s doing a public service, you know. She’s got a call from the Queen for it.”
Decades later I tried a similar, more graceful, more truthful tack (I left out the part about the Queen) with a couple of park rangers who chanced upon me harvesting wild stinging nettles on provincial park grounds outside the city limits. The invasive species line didn’t work as well for me as the first time.
Back home Daria yelled at her mother, made her promise never to go picking dandelions again, refused to eat her minestra, her zuppa di verdura, which her mother made with the dandelions. She said she’d rather starve than eat grass. Anyone who’s ever starved would never turn down an honest minestra.
I never mentioned the incident to my mother, and sat down lustily to her usual Saturday feast of minestra di verdura con pork ribs and veal bone.
That was another task my mother couldn’t turn over to me, making that sumptuous meal of minestra with the young harvest. She fussed over it for hours on Saturday morning, singing songs like the undiscovered diva she was, ancient songs of the sea and love ballads I never heard anywhere but in her kitchen. Without that ritual she would have been rudderless in her new country, lost without her compass.
Last week I pad $4.00 for a bunch of dandelion greens at the farmers market. A weed. I wonder what my mother would think of me for not picking my own. I wonder if she would be disappointed in me. In my mind’s eye, I frame her eternally in one of Van Gogh’s vibrant meadows, her hands working the Earth, my school bus riding by outside the painting, Woman with Weeping Willow, Harvesting Dandelions.
In memory of my mother, Maria Gesualdi, September 15, 1934 – June 3rd 2001.
Dandelions: Rich in an alphabet of Vitamins A,B,C, and D, as well as minerals. An excellent tonic for the liver and the blood. In the “bitter” category, thus excellent for digestion and much needed in our overly sweet and bitter deficient modern diets.
My favorite way to make dandelions, and many greens in fact, is to lightly sautee them in garlic and olive oil, just until they wilt fully, then toss them onto the plate, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and enjoy. There is usually one such option in many restaurants in Italy.
Minestra: A simple but elegant soup, with a rich flavor and a richer history.
If you want to make a minestra fit for a Van Gogh painting, here is a recipe I like. http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/minestra-maritata
However, I omit the hen. I also never boil my greens. Instead, I steam them in a small amount of water just until they wilt completely. Then add the steamed greens, very coarsely chopped, as well as the small amount of remaining, now rich green, liquid in the steamer, to the final broth with the deboned, chopped meat. I leave it you if you want to strain the fat off (as in step 4 of this recipe). And I recommend pecorino romano for the grated cheese.
Wonderful write up on a much maligned green.