I'm all for being weird for the sake of being weird. After all, it's brought us Boy George -- a fading celeb who spent his life defying the typical when it came to gender roles, but who recently resorted to the most generic lame excuse for a drug bust ever. ("Uh, they're not mine.") He could have at least asked the cops, "Do you really want to search me?"
But I'm not talking cross-dressing, 80's rock-star weird. I'm talking food weird. Like perverse pizza toppings. I've eaten anchovies just to be offensive. My pepperoni-and-pineapple phase was mostly to ensure no one else ate my half. But my latest favorite actually tastes great. Ready?
Pepperoni. Sausage. Heaps of nasturtium blossoms.
Yeah, the garden flower. They're pretty, peppery and sweet. Plus, they cater to my new hobby -- wandering around outside until I find something laying around on the ground to put into my mouth.
Foraging. I used to get spanked for it when I was little. At the ripe old age of three, my daughter has just outgrown it. And now, pushing 30, I've re-discovered the joys of it.
Here are the rules: If you don't know what it is, don't eat it. If it's recently been in anyone or anything else's mouth (or any other orifice), don't eat it. If it's been dead more than five minutes, don't eat it. Sorry to disappoint the 18-36 month old crowd, but that eliminates chewed gum, cigarette butts, and remnants of alien autopsies right off the bat.
Long ago, I read "Fritter Joe Boogum's Guide to Stuff You Can Eat Around North America". This great man dedicated his life to wandering through the backcountry and eating weeds, rocks and small shrubs. What didn't make him throw up or break out in a rash, he put in his book. Inspiring!
But just recently I came across the missing link to my grazing habits. Charlotte Bringle Clarke's "Edible and Useful Plants of California". This book possessed three critical differences. One, Fritter Joe mostly chewed on things laying about the eastern and central parts of the country -- Clarke's book contains more pertinent, local edibles. Two, although Fritter Joe had survived close to half a century of eating things he found laying around in the woods -- and longevity is an important factor in this sort of hobby, especially if you're looking for a source of good advice -- Charlotte Bringle teaches courses on the topic at a university, and has compiled her book in conjunction with botanists, nutritionists and people who know which species are too endangered to be used in a bean dip. Most importantly, however (because no true forager is all that squeamish -- otherwise we'd stick to foraging in the produce department like sane folk), Fritter Joe is, well, Fritter Joe. But Charlotte Bringle is a gourmet chef.
Her recipes actually taste good.
Fritter Joe had two basic approaches to edible plant life: Eat it like a salad or cook it like spinach. Charlotte Bringle won my heart with a recipe for stuffing nasturtium blossoms with a cream cheese and pineapple mix for appetizers. She gives recipes for steak seasonings, fudges, punches, muffins, omelettes, chowders, acorn roca bars and more.
Every time I read this book, I am transported into geeky fantasy -- a commuter plane has crashed in the heart of the Central Valley. We are miles (like one or two) away from civilization, stranded between an almond orchard and a Kaufman and Broad construction site. A real estate agent with smeared mascara and one broken high heel cries out, "For the love of God, we're all going to starve!!" and I look around at the stinging nettles standing chin high all about us and say coolly, "Are you mad, woman? We've landed neck deep in Nature's haute cuisine." By the time the rescue crews find us, we've all put on fifteen pounds and I've been given four stars by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Of course the reality of the situation is that when it's my turn to cook, my husband comes into the kitchen and says, "Smells good," then narrows his eyes and demands, "Where did you get it?" If I can't produce a receipt for it, he takes my daughter to Sonic for burgers. Even if I look at the pile of thistles and dandelions and say, "They're not mine!"
Some people just can't appreciate stuff that falls outside the norm.
Comments and recipes for "Roadside Gumbo" to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.
This article was supposed to first appear in the October 9, 2005 Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin, but actually showed up the following Tuesday.
I have the room here to cite the actual books referred to in the above column. Though I picked on Billy Joe Tatum's Wild Foods Cookbook for comic effect, they're both great reading, really.