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.

Additional Book Reviews on Awkward Botany:

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Influence of a Passion

This is a guest post by Samuel Malley.

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One of the most fascinating parts of plant interest is learning about those who have contributed to it as a whole. It has inspired great men and women who made it what it is today – from the Greek Theophrastrus, regarded as the father of botany through to Margaret Rebecca Dickinson who would bring these plants to life through illustrations. To learn about their lives is an absolute joy, knowing your passion has birthed these amazing people.

Take Carl Linnaeus, for example, a man who invented a method to name plants according to their genus, species, and so forth. We use this commonly today as it has become his legacy that impacts every botanist, gardener, and horticulturist as well as many others in the world. As the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder would say “fortune favours the brave.” This quote would certainly apply to many. The dream to travel to new far away lands and discover new plant species would indeed inspire those willing to be brave and be rewarded in return. Even now in this day and age people are still imagining and travelling to see what else is out there. And who knows, a plant could be discovered soon that pushes the boundaries of what we think and know.

One of the first botanists I came across just as my obsession was starting was Luca Ghini. Born in 1490, he created the first botanical garden in Pisa, Italy. Ghini also created a technique of drying and pressing plants, eventually being recorded with having the first herbarium. This supposedly contained around three hundred specimens.

To me Luca is one of my personal heroes – someone who’s genius shaped the modern plant world. What a privilege it must have been to be the first to have stepped into the Pisa Garden or to be in the company of Luca as he added a new leaf to his collection. He passed away in 1556, and like every great botanist he left a legacy. Ghini is still here, alive through his garden and his drying technique. To the man himself, if I could go back in time, the two words that I would say to him would be, “Thank you.”

Pisa Botanical Garden - photo credit: Chris / flickr

Pisa Botanical Garden – photo credit: Chris/Flickr

The future ahead in plant interest is a very bright one, awaiting more great people to add to the rich, fascinating history it has to offer full of eye opening men and women.

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Samuel Malley is a horticulture student in the United Kingdom. He is an aspiring botanist and is also interested in creating unique garden sculptures. 

Podcast Review: Gastropod

I am a voracious consumer of podcasts and have a long list that I regularly listen to. Despite being unable to get through all of them in a reasonable amount of time, I am still continually on the lookout for more. I am particularly interested in science or educational podcasts – something that I can listen to for an hour or so and learn new things about the world, whether it be breaking news or historical facts.

This year a new podcast was born – a podcast exploring the science and history of food.  It is called Gastropod, and it has quickly found its way into my regular rotation of podcast consumption. It wasn’t a difficult climb either, as the general theme of the podcast is something that fascinates me and the hosts do a top-notch job presenting the information and telling the stories.

gastropod

Gastropod is hosted by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley, each of whom have impressive backgrounds in researching and reporting on science, technology, food, and other topics for a variety of outlets both large and small. Among numerous other projects, Nicola has a blog called Edible Geography and Cynthia contributes regularly to Scientific American’s 60 Second Science podcast. Gastropod just happens to be their latest endeavor, and it is a welcome one.

Full length episodes of Gastropod are released once a month, with “snack-sized interludes” called Bites released in between to tide listeners over until the next helping. Since Gastropod is in its infancy (the first episode was released in September 2014), catching up on past episodes is simple. An afternoon of binge listening will do it.

Topics covered so far in full length episodes include the history and evolution of cutlery (which involves a taste test using spoons made of various metals), a discussion with Dan Barber about his book The Third Plate, an exploration of the emerging “microbe revolution” in agriculture (which piggybacks on an article that Cynthia wrote for NOVANext and which I reviewed back in July), and the rising popularity of kelp (“the new kale”) and the growth of seaweed farms. Bite-sized episodes have discussed things like modern day domestication of wild plants, underused American seafood resources, a meal replacement drink called Soylent, the expansive yet underappreciated (and disappearing) diversity of apples, and subnatural foods (smoked pigeon, anyone?).

So far every episode has been great, but if I had to pick a favorite, the interview with Dan Barber really stands out. His discussion of “ecosystem cuisines” – which moves beyond the farm-to-table movement – was new to me but seems like an important idea and one that I would like to see play a pivotal role in the development of science-based sustainable agriculture.

Gastropod is a young but promising podcast, and I look forward to many more captivating episodes in 2015 and beyond. Learn more about Gastropod and its hosts here.

Do you have a favorite podcast, science-themed or otherwise? Share it in the comments section below.