The Rite of Greens

John Thorne, chef and author, scopes out Maine’s hearty field salads.

© yougrowgirl

One of my all-time favorite cookbooks is Pino Luongo’s A Tuscan in the Kitchen. The food is good, simple and full of character, as if it were made out of the stuff of someone’s actual larder, and the recipes—because he gives no specific ingredient quantities—make you think and taste. The net effect is something that every cookbook should accomplish but only a few actually manage: you feel better about yourself as a cook after you put it down than you did before you picked it up. I also like it because it has the feeling of a writer trying as much to remember something for himself as to explain it to his readers. Consequently, his prose has that richness of image that comes from letting the eye linger long enough on a scene for all its corners to be filled in.

Take mattresses, for example. The Luongo family slept on wool ones, and every spring they sent for the materassai to come air them out. This meant opening them, removing and fluffing up every piece of wool inside, then putting it all back together again. It took the whole day and so the materassai brought their lunch along: a flask of wine, a loaf of bread, a cold fritata di pasta, another flask that held a simple condimentao per insalata (salad dressing) and an empty salad bowl. The salad itself—tiny field rugola, aromatic herbs, and wild spinach—would be quickly gathered from the fields around the house.

It all sounded very good, but what stuck in my mind after I turned the page was the confidence represented by that unfilled salad bowl. I don’t mean by this the bringing of a little flask of dressing along to work each day, secure in the knowledge that the salad is waiting by the roadside. That kind of certitude I understand well enough.

The wild green that I, like everybody, most immediately recognizes is dandelion. It comes up early, and it comes up salad-ready. Its tiny leaves are the first green thing to appear on our lawn: one morning in mid-April I head out to the compost pile and there they are. Two weeks later and they’re everywhere; our yard is a salad patch long before it becomes a lawn.

Identification is no problem: they draw the eye right to them. The difficulty comes when I actually pick some and try to eat them: a mouthful of tiny dandelion leaves is as tender as you could want, but they still make me all but gag. The same is true with other foraged greens and with the commercial ones that come closest to them—cress, for example, or corn salad, or chicory. It would be a different example if I simply disliked greens, but I don’t. It’s just that eating them I walk a tightrope between pleasure and actual physical revulsion. It’s like the edginess I feel eating blood sausage or tripe gumbo—there’s something here that cuts a little too close to the bone.

A salad of buttery lettuces made piquant by a few bitter greens is one thing; a whole plate of fresh-picked weeds is another, no matter how charming their names. Here, then, is the conundrum that that traveling Tuscan salad bowl posed me: its confidence of appetite.

“Field salad” is a hot item in certain culinary circles these days. But there always existed in Maine, where I used to live—as in Tuscany—a deep-rooted native hunger for wild greens. When I lived there, I wasn’t the only one around on the lookout for dandelions come first of spring. Indeed, in Maine, that is the time a meal of dandelion greens has all the imperative of a moral duty. “Spring tonic,” it is called. As Hazel V. Hall remembers in No, We Weren’t Poor, We Just Didn’t Have Any Money, it was the older children who were sent out into the fields to pick them:

We would go armed with butcher knives and dish pans to gather the tender morsels. After they were dug and carefully cleaned and washed we would serve them in several different ways. For instance, we would put a big piece of salt pork on to cook about one hour before we wanted to start the greens. Then when the greens were all ready we would cook them in the broth of the pork and water until done, with potatoes added for the last half hour of cooking. We always served a mustard sauce on the pork. This was most certainly a feast for the gods. Other times we would fry out several strips of bacon, mix a little vinegar, sugar, salt, and raw onion in some of the fat to pour over the greens and stir until wilted. On Saturday night we would make a salad of the little tender leaves by mixing them with vinegar, salt, sugar, and pepper to go with the delicious, golden baked beans.

Dandelions were also salted down for winter eating:

We would fill our jars full of (salted) greens and then wait a day or two and repeat this process as the greens had shrunk. Finally the day came when they all filled. We would cover each jar with a plate with a good-sized field rock on it and wait until winter to sample the wonderful flavor of salted greens.

Today, a local firm in Wilton puts up dandelions—and beet greens and fiddleheads—in cans under the “Belle of Maine” label. You have to have a strong sense of regional identity to be moved to buy a can of dandelion greens.

In my opinion, you also have to have real hunger to want to eat them at all. Rather than encouraging my appetite, the rank, determined fecundity of the dandelion entirely dissuades it. All that bitter greenness—a field’s worth of it makes no one hungry but a cow. Can anything besides vitamin starvation explain its culinary appeal?

The answer, I think, resides in the favorite way Mainers have of cooking it. Dandelion salads are not ignored, but Maine prose comes alive when the cook is instructed to take the greens, heaps and heaps of them—milkweed, cowslip, “pusley” (purslane), dock, pigweed, but most often dandelion—toss them in a big cast-iron pot with a chunk of salt pork and cook the bejesus out of them.

Hazel V. Hall sidesteps this question of cooking time, but Robert P. Tristram Coffin, never one to beat about the bush, states categorically in Mainstays of Maine:

Dandelion greens are to be boiled right up and down for three or four hours. Modern dietitians will blanch and hold the table until their knuckles show white. Let them… Let all the vitamins and salts go up in steam and out of the kettle. The dish is better off without such effete things.

If you cook your dandelions this way, something astonishing happens. Coffin speaks rightly: “They are tender as butter and melt as fast. A man eats five plates of it, with a dash of vinegar on each mountain, and cries for more.” But that mountain isn’t made of anything still identifiable as dandelion. It is dense, sinewy, slick with grease, a kind of green muscle: vegetable meat.

It takes a lot of greens to make a piece of meat, which is one reason we would usually rather let the cow do all the work, then go eat the cow. What this meal does, for those without the cow, is to face down this prolific aggressiveness with a determination equal to the dandelion’s own. It is less a dish than a primal rite: devouring your enemy to incorporate his vigor. Put away five plates of boiled weeds and you’ll get your vitamins and mineral salts—and do your lawn a good turn, besides.