How do I know I've been neglecting the Ethicurean? My mother sent me an email yesterday titled "Now I'm Worried" — not because I hadn't replied to her last three messages, but because I hadn't posted on the blog in ages. Since a few other people have wondered whether I've fallen under a bus, or been abducted by Monsanto, here's the truth: I've been playing hooky from the food politics world for a little while. (And from all the other kinds of politics, too.) For various reasons, I've needed a break. So I've been doing only what work I must, going for long walks/jogs every day in the glorious weather, cooking, catching up on my New Yorker subscription, and playing way too much Scrabulous. But I think I'm feeling restored enough to face the music — that scary "unread headline" count above. Very soon. (Apologies for the personal detour, but I wanted to thank longtime readers for their patience.)
Recently Severine von Tscharner Fleming, the founder and leader of the Greenhorns film and movement (just the latest in her frighteningly long list of accomplishments) came by to join me for a walk, lugging a gift of the largest jar of quince paste I have ever seen. The plan was for us to surgically detach ourselves from our laptops, get out in the sunshine, and chat about Web 2.0 stuff and dealing with the press.
I live in North Oakland on the border of both Berkeley and Emeryville; as we ambled west into Emeryville, Severine greeted practically every green thing we passed as if it were a long-lost friend ... that she just had to put in her mouth. And when I volunteered that, as an urbanite raised by bookish, non-outdoorsy parents, at best I can probably identify no more than 10 to 20 of the plants growing in my neighborhood, she tried to hide her dismay. Thus began a two-hour-long skill-share that reversed the usual generational roles: Fuddy-duddy me tried to explain RSS feeds, the point of Facebook (not sure there is one), and things like Digg to the 26-year-old. In turn, she shared knowledge gleaned from botany classes and, she confessed, years of reading seed catalogs at bedtime, about the edible things I've been walking past every day.
Turns out there's lots of them. Of course, as I live in a mildly industrial neighborhood near the freeway, the train tracks, and oh, a crematorium, I'm not eager to forage them, and even Severine stopped chewing on leaves after a mouthful that tasted like "icky poisonous chemicals," as she announced cheerfully after spitting it out . Our little safari took us behind the Sherwin Williams paint plant and the Novartis biotechnology compound, where we found an abandoned concrete slab that had been colonized by fennel (left; one plant I can identify). Sev introduced me to Lamiaceae, the family of mint and sage and other herbs, whose stems are usually square in cross section; and to wild mustard in the family Cruciferae, also known as Brassicaceae.
She pointed out wild ginger and sticky, thistly bedstraw, from the Galium family, which she stuck to her shirt like a brooch. She showed me a mallow (right), and explained that yes, one can actually make marshmallows from its mucilaginous stems and seeds; Calendula, meanwhile, from the marigold family, can be eaten as well as blended with olive oil to make salve.
I was in awe. How does one young curly head hold so much old-timey knowledge?
I dissuaded her from climbing a tree to score loquats. As we walked by the row of citrus trees that I have happily stolen foraged from for the past few years, Sev pointed out a parallel row of olive trees I had never noticed. She also befriended the man pulling weeds under the citrus, who said that he had planted all of the trees just 10 years ago for the adjoining live-work building, and that they didn't mind when passersby took a lemon here or there, but people hauling big bags full of zesty loot kinda bugged them.
"When I see that, I usually tell them the trees were just sprayed," he said. "Even though they're all organic." I looked guiltily at my feet. There goes my plans for making Buddha's hand infused vodkas as holiday gifts this year.
After Sev talked someone into letting us into a locked private garden, polka-dotted with Meyer lemons, that I'd always wanted to check out, it was time to head back. We both knew there would be way too much email awaiting us.
If you're a flora ignoramus like me, and you know someone who knows plants, I highly recommend enlisting them for a neighborhood hike. It makes the whole landscape come alive. And you know what? With all the doom and gloom in the food world, it really helps to get outside, among the growing things. Even if you live in an industrial ghetto. As I learned from Severine, it's not just about stopping and smelling the flowers, it's about learning which ones you can snack on.