Eat Local. Kill a Weed.

Garden Faith Durand

On a rainy afternoon last June, I stood over a muddy pile of weeds, cleaver in one hand, murderous purpose in the other. Garlic and a sauté pan waited indoors. This was my first attempt at gardening, and I was having a moment of communion with my most primitive self.

My husband and I had been seeking a comfortably liberal, homey neighborhood, a place where rain barrels nestled below drain pipes and front yards sported sheaves of kale. We found just such a place in urban Ohio, and not a moment later I coveted a garden. It was utterly logical, a natural response to the locavores’ call to grow what we eat and eat what we grow.

Mike, my husband, was raised in the ’70s by two organically minded graduate students, so he was eager and amenable, visions of tomatoes practically dancing above his head. We took stock of our rental yard, a tenth of an acre that bore the scars of previous tenants’ attempts to enjoy, variously, an English flower garden, a tiny apple grove, and a formal parterre of rescued Christmas trees, each now neglected. We spoke of north-south orientations and discussed watering plans. We paced out our beds, blank slates of edible promise. My husband amended the Ohio clay with “Mel’s Mix,” a blend of peat moss, vermiculite, and inexplicably expensive composted cow manure. I paged through glossy seed catalogs and placed ambitious orders. We fingered lines in the earth and dribbled in seeds. Tiny forms rose to the light as if by magic.

Other things rose as well. Dandelions were the first surprise guests to bloom, cheery and sinister. And they were only the beginning. To our dismay, ranks of uninvited crabgrass advanced on our precious heirloom tomatoes, and our baby Thumbelina carrots struggled beneath an ambush of morning glories and bindweed.

I’d spent summers nurturing patio tomatoes crouched in barrels and the odd pot of basil, but these casual experiences hadn’t—couldn’t have—prepared me for gardening in the open soil. When a tomato lives alone in a box, you are a god to it. You tenderly water, feed, and turn it to the sun. No plant can avoid solipsism when grown in a box, as there’s nothing to compete for legroom. Whereas weeds, the agnostics of the plant world, make their way with no help from anyone at all. Out here in the open soil, it’s anyone’s game.

My dream, fueled by perusing web sites and paging through catalogs late at night as my husband slept beside me in our winter bed, was that our garden would be a showpiece. More than once I caught myself standing in the kitchen, lost in reverie, on my arm a rustic farm basket brimming with fistfuls of lettuce and sorrel soon to land on my guests’ plates.

The weeds fought this fantasy at every turn, overrunning the kale and smothering the tomatoes. They quickly multiplied, presenting unpleasant surprises daily. My once virtuous gardening endeavor, so promising, turned grim in the face of these invaders, among them comfrey, pokeweed, and bishop’s weed, as well as colorful and tireless morning glories. The worst of all, I soon discovered, was burdock.

The first sign of this intruder was a ruffled, even beautiful, leaf that had unfurled behind the salad beds. Pat, our aging hippie landlady and guru of all things wild and cultivated, had stopped by and taken notice. She still used our yard as a refuge for plants drowned, crowded, abused, or otherwise rescued under cover of darkness from affluent but neglectful yards. She’s always happy to lend sage advice in exchange for a beer.

“Oh, burdock,” she said. “That’s not to be encouraged.” This is Pat’s shorthand for anything nasty, brutish, or invasive. Shovel in hand, I attacked. But I was too late. Burdock was buried up to its neck in every inch of that garden bed.

Battle rage came over me like a red haze. I thumbed through plant guides and trawled garden websites searching for a burdock kill-all, only to discover that this weed was better adapted to my garden than I was. Burdock thrives spectacularly in thoughtfully prepared garden humus. Gardeners in Europe, China, and India suffer it. Japan, too. The plant even has, as weapon, burrs that latch onto clothing, fur, bare skin. When a Swiss inventor looked at them under a microscope, their intricate tenacity inspired him to create Velcro. Hummingbirds, lured by burdock’s brilliant buds and caught in those hooks, die slowly, needled through the throat.

My husband looked upon my growing burdock obsession with mild amusement. Now and then he’d take a halfhearted swipe at the weed when he needed catharsis, but his outlook on the yard—as on life—is sunnier than mine. For him, the landscape is mainly a place to be soaked up. “So the weeds grow,” he said. “We’ll pull them when they get too bad and enjoy the garden the rest of the time.” To me, this was impossibly optimistic.

In the midst of this struggle, I happened to stumble upon burdock root in the produce aisle of our local organic grocery store for $5.99 a pound. I was struck dumb at the sight of my enemy commanding such cash.

I went back to the books, this time with a different intent. I found that Japanese cooks, who refer to burdock root as gobo, slice it alive and stir-fry it with sesame, mirin, and soy. Herbalists go it one better, relying on burdock as both aphrodisiac and tonic. “Burdock’s ethereal fire fuels all the organic processes, thus improving, cleansing, and toning the whole body,” promised my source.

I wasn’t keen on the idea of ethereal fire in my organic processes, but whatever. By now I’d bent to the task. I would vanquish my foe in familiar territory: my kitchen.

That afternoon I raked through a pile of young burdock shoots I’d pulled earlier in the day. The few pale roots I found were too skinny to be worth cleaning and cooking, which led to disturbing visions of so many more roots left below ground, waiting to emerge like vampires from their coffins.

I’d whacked enough plants to have a pile of muddy stalks, though. For help—and moral support—I turned to The Wild Vegan Cookbook by “Wildman” Steve Brill, a naturalist and urban forager who offers recipes for every part of the burdock. I took up a handful of stalks to inspect. They were veined with white and green, violet blushing at the bottoms, leaves hanging limp. Their celery-like appearance seemed familiar enough. Stalks it was.

I hefted my cleaver and hacked away, slitting the leaves from the stalks and tossing the former on the compost heap. (I’d read someplace that some hardy souls like the leaves in salads, but most consider them too tough for any creature but goats.) Brill advises peeling the stalk to rid it of the bitter skin. Easier written than done. Burdock stalks are flared and crimped, like the top of a celery stick. Getting a peeler into that indentation proved difficult. Using a French peeler with a single fixed blade and a sharp tip, I went at each stalk with a jerk of the wrist, flicking away splinters of mulch as well as a translucent grub which then gyrated across my cutting board.

Impatient to taste my spoils, I popped a half-moon of raw, peeled stalk in my mouth. It had an initial burst of lemony freshness, a celery-like bite, and then a ringing bitterness that settled down to stay. Not promising. I dumped my scant cup of sliced stalks into a saucepan and watched as they bobbed in the boiling water, which turned a brilliant yellow-green. After I’d drained the softened stalks, I noticed that they, too, were alarmingly fluorescent. Not promising at all. But I was determined to see this thing through. The recipe called for tossing the stalks with garlic that had been sautéed in a little olive oil and some fresh oregano, to which I added a quarter cup of water and a splash of red wine. Then I waited while this bubbled down into a glaze.

By the time I turned off the stove, the burdock had darkened and was no longer a garish spectacle. My enemy lay there, cooked in a steaming pulp, a pile of silken, garlicky garden weed.

I took a bite.

There’s no other way to say it. It was delicious. The bitterness had disappeared and a vegetal taste melted over my tongue, similar to that of a steamed artichoke heart but wilder, with a haunting greenness. Even in death this weed tasted more alive than my tomatoes, my kale, my cosseted herbs.

I gave my husband a bite. “It tastes like a cross between celery and mashed potatoes!” he pronounced. Two well-domesticated vegetables. It seemed a fitting end. There were no ethereal fires burning within us that we could tell, save for the satisfaction of a minor triumph. We ate our vanquished nemesis with quiet pleasure.

It was a moral victory, not a tactical one. The hordes of weeds paid not the slightest attention to their fallen comrades. I now know that there will always be more burdock, although I doubt I’ll cook it again. I’m long on practicality and short on time, and besides, artichoke hearts come cleaned and frozen.

I remember the thrill of its taste, though, as I gaze at my garden with its ragged signs of wars left to be fought. Sometimes I wonder if my husband’s easygoing attitude is saner than mine. To me, gardening is a bitter, unromantic war, fought in mud and pollen with shovel and cleaver. The irony is that after so much anxiety and worry over my delicate seedlings, cooking and eating this wild weed has given me the greatest satisfaction in my garden, and maybe taught me a measure of balance. A long history of cunning cookery reveals itself here, with weeds in aggressive edible abundance and ripe for dandelion wine, lamb’s quarters salads, stinging nettles soup, and sautéed burdock.

No matter who wins this struggle, weed or me, there’ll be plenty to nourish me for the struggle ahead.

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About Faith Durand

Faith Durand is executive editor of The Kitchn. She's also a food writer, recipe developer, and author of the forthcoming Bakeless Sweets, a cookbook of puddings, icebox cakes, natural fruit jellies, and other bakeless desserts (to be published by Stewart Tabori & Chang in spring 2013). She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband Mike, a sink full of dishes, and a very unruly garden.

Comments
Comments
  1. I love this article! I met an urban forager last year and after going on a ‘weed walk’ returning with a huge bounty which we made into a group salad, my life was changed. I came home to look at my garden, and the weeds I’ve so desperately tried to eradicate to realize it was just more food in a different form that my uneducated self could recognize. Now I await the nuisance ‘weeds’ in the spring knowing how delicious and fortifying they are.

    • Lindsay Myers says:

      Urban foragers are awe-inspiring, aren’t they, Toni? I worked on a project last summer and met a chef who just casually wandered into an abandoned parking lot and came back with bags full of edible weeds and fennel pollen for the meal. I’m partial to purslane–it sounds like it’s becoming pretty trendy!

  2. Rick Casner says:

    Great story! I’ve been watching my wife Lynn nuture 24 corn plants in a little patch of hardscrabble ground that looks like it most recently hosted a rodeo. She waters, weeds, and props up the weaker plants with little sticks when their spirits flag. She is determined that we are going to have corn, by God, while I, like your husband, watch all of this in wonder.

  3. Chiyo U. says:

    What a wonderful essay! My Japanese grandmother prepared burdock quite often the way it’s described in the story here. I’ve never been lucky enough to find it in my yard. But ever since purslane “invited itself” to my garden one summer, my herb & vegetable beds are carpeted with the super omega-3 weed every year. It seems to keep the soil shady and moist, which is great. I put purslane in cold salads, such as a quinoa salad, potato salad, etc. Free health food just steps away from my porch door. LOVE IT.

  4. Faith says:

    Thanks everyone for your kind words! Toni and Lindsay, I am somewhat in awe of you both, as I really did not become a better urban forager through this experience! I would love to hear more about your foraging.

    Rick, that made me laugh out loud – I am crossing my fingers for the corn! I hope they make it.

    And Chiyo, if you’re ever in Ohio, you can absolutely help yourself to all the burdock you can eat from my yard!

  5. Alan says:

    Faith, I really liked your post! I have only a small garden so it’s easy to tame. But the yard–dandelions and purslane everywhere. (I’m sure other stuff I don’t recognize.) Have you ever made anything with purslane?

  6. Monica Bhide says:

    Loved your post! I have all kinds of things growing in my yard…need to go look at them with fresh, new eyes :-)

  7. Faith says:

    Alan, thanks so much! I’ve never done anything with purslane – that’s one thing I don’t seem to have. I have had it in salads before though and I think it’s so delicious.

    Monica, thank you! Tell me if you find something good out there… :)

  8. Anne says:

    This is funny. It reminds me of my brother, who I tried to convince to grow a few veggies and spruce up the front of his house with some grasses and low bushes. I planted everything, gave him pictures of what the good guys looked like, and admonished him to weed out the bad guys. Summer was busy, I didn’t see him for awhile, then dropped by in August. Weeds thick and lush!! I asked him about them and he replied in all innocence “I don’t know what happened. I pulled the weeds out once.” Gardener he was not. :-)

  9. Jon says:

    My first introduction to edible weeds was when I was knee high to a grasshopper. My grandmother came to the house for a visit, and I watched, amazed, as she took a basket and went to the ditches. (I grew up on a hobby farm.) The salad at lunch was delicious. I am sorry to say, though, that I never spent much time with her, and she passed four years ago. That knowledge gained raising seven kids in western Colorado during The Depression passed with her. I still grow things, though. I even started a small business simply because I want to give people a taste of what they are missing…how good fresh stuff tastes that has soaked up your love.

  10. Faith says:

    Anne, that’s hilarious! I feel very much in sympathy with your brother.

  11. I loved this! I am trying to eat as much of my yard as possible, and am constantly finding new edibles. I’ll keep my eye out for burdock. I have cooked and eaten cleavers, but they still maintained their velcro quality…

  12. Faith says:

    Ariana, that awesome! But what are edible cleavers? I don’t know those! I only know my big Chinese cleaver with a wicked blade… I assume you mean something entirely different! :)

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