How Do You Know It’s a Dandelion?

I like to start my foraging tours off by leading the group to a patch of dandelions. “What are those?” I ask, and of course somebody answers “Dandelions,” because pretty much everybody knows what a dandelion looks like. “How do you know?” is my next question. “Well, it’s got a yellow flower,” comes the response. “Lot’s of plants have yellow flowers. How else do you know?” I reply. And then people start mentioning that it’s low to the ground, the shape of the leaves, and other points that are part of the basic field identification of Taraxacum officinale, the dandelion. Because they learned what a dandelion looked like as kids, they aren’t conscious of how exactly they know it is a dandelion, but they are practicing excellent wild edible plant identification skills nonetheless.

I do this dandelion lead off on my tours to demonstrate to the participants that they do already have the skills to identify which plant is which. They just need to make those skills conscious.

Today I collected red clover blossoms.

Red clover blossoms make a wonderful tea fresh or dried, but more interestingly they can be ground and used as a flour substitute in baked goods (replace 1/4-1/3 of the flour in your recipe if you decide to try this). They give the resulting muffins a pleasantly spongy texture and a hint of sweetness.

I had to pay attention while I was collecting them because they were growing along side poisonous though pretty buttercups (lousy phone photo, sorry about that. The buttercups are the yellow flowers, the red clover the, well, red-ish ones).

That’s fine. I trust my ability to pay attention and know the difference between a buttercup and red clover. But on my foraging tours when I point out a poisonous plant growing near an edible one, people draw back and get timid about collecting the edible plant. It’s as if they would rather trust some expert they’ve never met to sell them their food via the supermarket than their own ability to tell the difference between two plants. Yet we eat foods all the time that have poisonous parts without thinking twice about it. Tomato plants, for example: the fruit (the part we eat) is edible but the leaves are poisonous. Rhubarb is another example. The green leaves are poisonous but the reddish leafstalk and midrib are the delicious spring treat I look forward to every year.

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of accurate plant ID if you’re foraging. The first rule of foraging is if in doubt, throw it out. My point is that plant identification is a learned skill, not something you’re born with. You learned how to recognize a dandelion when you were a kid, and if you want to you can learn to recognize red clover vs. buttercups (which don’t look remotely similar, by the way). You could do this with a field guide, or by going onĀ  wild edible plants walks with more experienced foragers (just Google the topic plus your area. If you live in the NYC area, my next wild edible plants walk will be for Green Edge Collaborative on June 20th), or by double-checking your ID via numerous plant web sites online.

One more story to make my point: A few years ago I was working at the Kaatsban Center for the Performing Arts in upstate New York. There were teenagers in the show and their parents had come up as chaperones and to enjoy the performances. We stayed at a pretty sleezy motel with an iHop-type restaurant and nothing else nearby. Just outside the restaurant was a thicket of blackberries at their peak. I collected a bagful thinking they’d be a welcome addition to the motel restaurant’s pancake breakfast. Not one of the kids or their parents would touch them. “How do you know they are blackberries?” one of the teenagers asked.

That made me incredibly sad. I grew up in a city and have lived most of my life in cities, but at least I still know how to recognize a blackberry. This trend of forgetfulness and trusting packaging more than personal know-how is something I think we should start reversing at once, before it’s too late.

And as for that “pay attention” factor? That’s part of the fun. I suck at meditation, but from what my meditating friends tell me about the benefits of “mindfulness” I think I get the same thing out of walking with my eyes on the lookout for the next great free forager’s harvest, tuning into the details to make sure I’m right about what I’ve got, and then sitting down for the feast that follows (actually, I don’t think the feast is part of your standard meditation practice. I’ll stick with foraging).

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About Leda’s book: Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes by Leda Meredith

Flowers for Rhubarb

I’m in Switzerland teaching and directing at a school called Dance Loft. It’s a sweet gig, though hardly local. Once again I paid my carbon offset on my plane ticket, and once again I’m wondering whether doing so actually made a beneficial difference.

I’m staying in Steinach, a tiny town two train stops away from Rorschach, where I’m working. The lilacs

and wisteria are in full glory

I really, really can’t complain about life right now (well, there’s the looming June 1st book deadline and the two dancers here who just dropped out because of injuries, but never mind).

This morning I complimented my landlady on the gorgeous bunch of rhubarb she had sticking out of her bag. She promptly gave me some, and then ran back into the house for some sugar “because you can’t eat rhubarb by itself.” Personally, I would have gone for some local honey, but generosity and kindness are local ingredients not to be trifled with and I decided not to be an ungrateful locavore.

It turns out that she got the rhubarb, along with a lot of other produce, from a neighbor in exchange for her flower arrangements. This is a longstanding trade agreement with between them.

What a lovely way to get food! I’m working on a chapter about ways to keep a local diet affordable, and I’m thankful to Frau Arnold for reminding me that barter is still an option in the 21st century.

Meanwhile, here’s me holding up a locally brewed beer,

and here’s my dad doing the same (he decided to turn the first week of my working trip into his vacation, the first one he’s had in several years).

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Get the book: Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes by Leda Meredith

Local Foods Radio Interview and Reading with Leda Online

I’ve got three bits of locavore news online to share with you this week:

Yesterday I did a blog talk radio interview on local foods. You can listen to it online at Concrete Food.

If you weren’t able to make one of my book readings in the past couple of weeks, you can listen to part of one at About Harvest.

And there’s a pic and brief article about one of my recent wild edible plants walks here.

I promise a regular post soon!

A Tipping Point for Local Foods?

I think we’ve hit a positive tipping point for local foods. “Local” has entered mainstream parlance in a similar way to “organic” a few years ago. Whether or not it is going to be similarly adulterated remains to be seen. But in order to make a real difference to our environment, our local farmers on small farms, and our health, “local” does need to go mainstream in my opinion. It can’t remain a fringe movement and make a significant difference.

My yesterday started when I registered for the Brooklyn Food Conference. It was inspiring and encouraging to see so many people turn out on a drizzly morning to learn how they could participate in changing our food system to something sustainable, healthy, and tasty. The auditorium was packed for the opening statements by Robert Jackson of Brooklyn Rescue Mission, Alison Cohen of World Hunger Year, our Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Dan Barber of Stone Barns Institute, LaDonna Redmond of Institute for Community Organizing, and Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved.

After the opening event, there were three floors of workshops related to sustainable food systems going nonstop for six hours. I wished I could clone myself because there were so many of them I would have liked to attend. I hesitated over whether or not to go to the obvious (for me) local foods one on CSAs and farmers’ markets, thinking I probably knew most of what they were going to say. But in the end, I did choose that workshop on the justification that I am, after all, working on a second book on the subject.

And delightfully, I didn’t know all of the info already. I didn’t know how extensive the programs trying to make fresh, local foods available in low income neighborhoods are, or that there is a campaign to reopen a wholesale farmers’ market in the city where bodegas, chefs, and shop owners could get locally produced products wholesale.

I left energized and enthused. In a fun syncronicity with the local foods theme, I had to miss the mid-afternoon workshops because it was pick up day for my CSA meat, egg, bread, and cheese order. After I picked up my CSA order, I spent the rest of the afternoon taking notes on Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, because I’d be speaking on it later (read it and loved it when it first came out, but that’s not the same as being able to speak publically about it, so I had to do my homework). I didn’t know what to expect when I showed up at the Brooklyn Museum to host this month’s First Saturdays Book Club.

I was told afterwards that it is normal for the club to have 10 to 20 people show up. We had over 80. I don’t kid myself that they were there for me: Pollan’s bestselling author status and the topic itself were what brought them to the event. The questions I got were both intelligent and urgent. These were people who saw the need for a change in how they eat and got the connection between food choices and the environment, and they wanted to know what they could do now. Even the lone heckler (there’s always one) asked some smart questions. It was a privilege to moderate the conversation, and once again, as I’d felt at the conference earlier in the day, I felt hopeful and motivated and encouraged.

The conversation will continue this coming Tues. May 5th at the Community Bookstore in Park Slope. I’ll be reading a bit from my first book, but I’m just as interested in your questions. Can you do a local, organic diet affordably? How do you fit in the time to get the stuff and cook when you’re schedule is already about to explode? Why and how does it make a difference? These are some of the questions I got last night, and I look forward to talking with you about them on Tuesday.

And if you were intrigued by my last post about the foraging tour I led for Green Edge, please check out this post on supereco. There are some great photos there of what you can create with a foraged salad, and also good info on the plants we identified on that walk. I’m a big fan of her blog, and heartily recommend that you subscribe.

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