Book Review: A Feast of Weeds

Since I am planning on eating more weeds, it seems appropriate that I review this book. Not to be confused with Feast of Weeds, a series of apocalyptic novels about a world-ending plague, A Feast of Weeds, by Luigi Ballerini is tangentially about foraging and cooking wild, edible plants. I say “tangentially” because it’s not like other foraging guides. This is a “literary guide,” as the subtitle states, so in the place of plant descriptions and harvesting tips, etc. are verbose and erudite essays summarizing the various literary references that each of the species profiled has accumulated from antiquity to the modern era. Apart from dozens of recipes, the information presented in this book is more entertaining than it is practical; however, when telling the stories of plants, the human element is an important facet – particularly in the stories of edible and medicinal plants – and it is the human element that this book is concerned with.

Ballerini is an Italian poet, a cooking historian, and a professor of Italian literature at UCLA. The 31 plant species he chose to profile can all be foraged in Italy (most of them in one specific region), and all except for maybe capers can be found somewhere in the United States. The majority of the plants in this book are commonly cultivated as crops, ornamentals, or landscape plants – few are truly weeds – but all of them can be found growing wild somewhere. And that’s one of Ballerini’s main points – wild food and the act of foraging is a very different experience from farmed food and the act of buying it at the grocery store. Take arugula for example:

Try making a salad with arugula that you have gathered yourself in a field and compare its taste with what you have made a hundred times with pre-washed and sterilized arugula bought at the supermarket or even at a farmers’ market. It’s easy to predict the comment that will immediately come to your lips: ‘There’s no comparison.’

A selection of recipes accompanies each of the plants that Ballerini writes about. These recipes were “invented or elaborated” by Ada De Santis, who lives on a farm in the “heel of Italy” and who “enthusiastically agreed to divulge the secrets of her kitchen.” Ballerini partnered with De Santis because of her Italian ancestry and her vast experience with both wild and cultivated plants.

Each chapter in the book follows the same basic format: a discussion of the myriad references a certain plant has received in various writings throughout human history, an overview of the (often bizarre) medicinal uses the plant has had throughout the centuries, and a brief statement on when to harvest the plant. References include plays, poems, songs, myths, fiction and non-fiction, religious and sacred texts, medicinal plant guides, and even artwork. Reading through the book, my interest and attention waned often, partly due to Ballerini’s way of writing and also due to my lack of familiarity (and lack of interest, frankly) with the references. But there were enough interesting bits here and there that made it worth the effort.

common mallow (Malva neglecta )

Of course, my interest was mainly held by the chapters about the weeds. Apparently, mallow (Malva spp.) has been written about prolifically, leading Ballerini to write, “the history of mallow is complex and contradictory, rich in illustrious testimony but, given its effects, not always very noble.” Like other plants in the book, the medicinal uses for mallow have been so numerous that it could be considered “a true cure-all,” if in fact it truly treated all the things it has been claimed to treat. On a humorous note, Ballerini writes in the chapter on wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), “we have come to understand … if a plant is good for you, it is good for nearly everything – but particularly for snakebite.”

Ballerini especially enjoys sharing odd medical claims, like in the chapter about sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), in which Nicholas Culpepper promoted some interesting uses for its juice. Purportedly, bringing it to a boil or “warming it in some bitter almond oil inside the skin of a pomegranate is a sure remedy for deafness and tinnitus.” The medicinal uses of wild chicory (Cichorium intybus) are “as old as the hills,” with a medical papyri from ancient Egypt (circa 1550 B.C.) referencing its medicinal uses among “magic formulas and spells for driving away evil-intentioned demons.”

sow thistle (Sonchus sp.)

A couple of paragraphs about dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) find their way into the chapter about wild chicory. The rosettes of these two plants look similar, and the roots of both, when “roasted and ground, can be used as a substitute for coffee.” Dandelion is also known to be a diuretic, and is thus referred to as pisciailetto in Italy, pissenlit in France, and piss-a-beds in England.

Speaking of the names of things, how things came to be called what they are is a topic that Ballerini addresses frequently throughout the book. However, such origins aren’t always clear. In the chapter on wild raspberries (Rubus idaeus), Ballerini reflects on the “general uncertainty regarding the origin of the English term raspberry.” Does it originate from the Old French word rasper, the Spanish word raspar, and the Italian word raspare, all of which mean to rasp or to scrape? Ballerini laments, “this introduces very unpleasant connotations for such a delicate fruit (yet there are those who, when faced with roses always think of thorns).”

While the bulk of this book is of little use to me – I guess I’m just not that interested in classic literature or mythology – it’s worth keeping around for the recipes alone, several of which I am anxious to try. If the idea of an unconventional field guide appeals to you, this book might be up your alley, just as it apparently was for this reviewer.

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Summer of Weeds: Eating Purslane

If it wasn’t so prolific and persistent, purslane would probably be a welcome guest in our vegetable gardens and edible landscapes. Easily among the most nutritious and versatile of the edible weeds, Portulaca oleracea is an annoyingly abundant annual that has inserted itself into garden beds and croplands in temperate climates across the globe. Thought to have originated in India or somewhere in Eurasia, purslane invaded North America long before Europeans did and has been naturalized across much of the continent for hundreds of years.

common purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

There are over 100 known species in the genus Portulaca, the only genus in the family Portulacaceae (otherwise known as the purslane family). Common purslane is a succulent plant with paddle- or teardrop-shaped leaves that generally grows low to the ground, forming a thick mat. It reaches for the sky when grown in shade or when competing with other plants for space. It produces little, yellow flowers that only open in bright sun and are typically self-pollinated. A small capsule containing dozens of tiny, black seeds quickly follows each flower. Each plant can produce tens of thousands of seeds, which remain viable for around 40 years.

Attempts to remove purslane by cultivation may only aid its survival. Broken pieces of the plant can take root in the soil, and uprooted plants can re-root if they are in contact with soil. Stirring up the ground brings to the surface seeds from purslane’s extensive seed bank. These freshly exposed seeds can then germinate, taking advantage of disturbance and open space. For all these reasons and more, John Eastman writes in The Book of Field and Roadside: “Purslane knows how to live and linger.”

The ever-urban and ever-common purslane.

The seeds of purslane germinate in late spring and throughout the summer when the soil has reached at least 75 – 80° Fahrenheit. It is adapted to high heat and dry soils. In order to conserve water, it switches to CAM photosynthesis when conditions are particularly hot and dry. In this photosynthetic pathway, carbon dioxide is stored as malic acid during the night and then converted back during the day. This means that, when it comes to eating purslane, the flavor changes depending on when the plant is harvested. In The Wild Wisdom of Weeds, Katrina Blair discusses this phenomenon: “In the morning purslane leaves contain as much as ten times more malic acid, making them very sour tasting. If you prefer a milder tasting purslane, harvest your greens in late afternoon and if you want more zing to your recipes, gather the leaves at dawn.”

Speaking of eating purslane, if all the claims are to be trusted, there may not be a more nutritious weed. In A Feast of Weeds, Luigi Ballerina calls it “a health bomb” because “it contains more omega-3 fatty acids than almost any other green, not to mention vitamins A, B, and C and beta carotene.” Blair calls it “one of the most nutritious plants on Earth,” and goes on to sing praises about its richness in dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, protein, etc. Funnily enough, in describing the health benefits of purslane, Ballerina also quotes ancient sources claiming that “purslane calms sexual excitement.” Apparently it not only “eliminate[s] sensual dreams, but if used too much, it often extinguishes all ardor and even the capacity to procreate.”

With that caveat in mind, I tried it anyway. I had eaten it before, but nothing more than a leaf here and there and once in a green salad. I picked two recipes to try: Walnut Purslane Coleslaw from The Wild Wisdom of Weeds and Potatoes and Purslane from A Feast of Weeds. I’m generally a big fan of coleslaw, but for whatever reason I found this recipe to be a little bland. It was missing something, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The purslane seemed to add a vague slimy-ness to it, which it will do on account of its mucilaginous nature.

Walnut Purslane Coleslaw

The Potatoes and Purslane recipe involved cooking the purslane. I enjoyed the finished product both hot and cold. The purslane added a sort of lemon-y spinach flavor. Those who tried it with me also liked it. The potato recipe was made with purslane that had been harvested in the morning, which may explain the strong lemon-y flavor. The coleslaw was made with purslane harvested in late afternoon, which may explain its blandness. I will have to try it the other way around for comparison. Purslane recipes abound in books and on the internet; browsing through them, I am intrigued enough to consider trying others. I think I’ll start with pickled purslane, purslane pesto, and perhaps, purslane sauerkraut.

Potatoes and Purslane

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Do you have a favorite purslane recipe? Share it in the comment section below.