A Weed By Another Name: Salad, by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, May 29, 1996

“There’s an old saying that a weed is a green growing where you don’t want it. Although this is a bit of an exaggeration, there is no doubt that one culture’s tasty salad ingredient is another’s noxious pest.

We received a firsthand education in the weed/green question one Sunday afternoon last summer. Our Turkish friend, Ihsan Gurdal, who was raised in Istanbul, had volunteered to help us weed the vegetable garden at a friend’s house. The minute he walked through the garden gate, though, he was transformed from weedkiller to green-gatherer. The most rampant of the weeds we were busily ripping out of the ground, he claimed, was actually purslane, an excellent edible green. Despite (or perhaps because of) our skepticism, he picked some, washed it and recreated the deliciously tart salad his family used to enjoy as an afternoon snack.

This kind of cultural enlightenment may be rare in practice, but in theory it could happen every day, for many delectable greens lurk among the plants usually considered weeds. Each summer, for example, American gardeners make war on the creeping sorrel that French housewives seek out, and homeowners spend hours pulling or poisoning the dandelions whose greens are treasured by Italian cooks.

So, given that the definition lies in the mind of the diner, how does a plant make the crucial transition from despised weed to valued green?

Obviously, the first requirement is edibility. But that alone will not start the metamorphosis. As Noel Vietmeyer, a food explorer at the National Academy of Sciences at Bethesda, Md., is fond of saying, the underbark of pine trees is edible, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to become a popular food.

A plant becomes part of the larder only if it conforms to cultural ideals of pleasant taste and texture. Many Americans, for example, may turn up their noses at preserved eggs, while the Chinese who enjoy these eggs as delicacies are likely to regard cheese as nothing but rotted milk.

So the jump from weed to green represents the victory of a kind of culinary open-mindedness, a willingness to consider plants on merit rather than reputation.

In the United States, at least, this is also partly an exercise in regaining past culinary practices. Thomas Jefferson mentions that markets of his day routinely carried not only a variety of lettuces but also such now-rare items as sorrel, corn salad and cress, and foraging for wild edible greens was a common practice among rural families of the day.

For a former weed truly to enter the pantheon of greens, though, it must also make the jump from wild to cultivated. Of the plants that have bridged that chasm, perhaps the most readily available are purslane, dandelion greens, mustard greens, and the cresses.

Purslane, which grows wild in virtually every vacant lot, resembles a small creeping jade plant, with reddish stems and small, soft, oval leaves that have a tart, lemony flavor. Its crunchy texture and refreshing citrus taste are particularly good in salads, and it has the added advantage of being extremely high in linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that has been shown to help prevent heart disease and to bolster the body’s immune system. To prepare purslane for use, simply pick the clusters of leaves off the large stems, discard the stems, and wash and dry the leaves.

Everyone who has ever had a lawn knows what dandelion greens look like. Those who have never tasted them have missed their rich flavor, pleasantly bitter and somewhat sharp. If harvesting them from the wild, make sure to pick from an area where pesticides have not been used, and choose only the tender, young leaves, less than six inches long.

The other yellow-flowered weed that makes great eating is mustard, whose flowers carpet fields during springtime. Coarse in texture with a strong, peppery flavor, mustards come in hundreds of varieties. Flat-leaf purple varieties and tightly curled, rather stiff green varieties are among the most popular. Mustards can be eaten raw when very small, but when older, they are best cooked quickly, as in stir-frying or sauteing.

In the South, people still gather wild field cress, also known as ‘creasy greens.’ Field cress can be eaten raw only when very young, but a less aggressive version of its rather biting flavor can be approximated by garden cress or, most commonly, by watercress. All of these cress cousins have small, glossy, dark-green leaves on tender, rather leggy stems, and varying degrees of pepperiness.”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “A Weed By Another Name: Salad,” by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, May 29, 1996

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