Most people hate dandelions. I love them. At the sight of the first saw-tooth blades thrusting out of the ground, I rejoice. So unlike the Blanche Du Bois ephemerals that show up in their chilly negligees, dandelions are a tough bunch. Before you know it, they’re cropping up everywhere, breaking out of sidewalk cracks, thriving on the worst soils, rugged as day laborers and as pungent.
The smell of dandelions always reminds me of my father, and brings me back to one of the few affectionate exchanges I ever witnessed between my parents. I was living in Versailles, (Ver-sales) Kentucky, about to be married for the second time in a farmhouse at the edge of a cemetery. My parents had flown in from New York. While wandering in the garden, my father found a luscious patch of basil growing among the weeds. He picked a sprig and carried it through the backdoor to present it to my mother. “I brought you a flower,” he said with a wry smile and a little mock bow. She took it, held it briefly to her nose and said, “It’s as pungent as you are.”
I spent Mother’s Day this year visiting my family in Minneapolis. My granddaughter is five, going on six, exactly the right age to be thrilled by the sight of a thousand miniature suns suddenly popping up as if by magic overnight. It was all I could do to keep her from tripping over the curb and dashing out into the traffic as soon as she spied them exploding out of two inches of dirt along the edge of a gritty parking lot.
There is something primordial about picking dandelions. Mina gathered up all the gold she could stuff into her fists, to be crammed into a jelly jar and given to her mother. I latched onto a lusty patch of greens growing just over a fence in the shade of a neighbor’s rangy backyard. There was rhubarb in that garden too, big thick stalks just begging to be plucked. With a paper bag and a blunt paring knife, I set to work.
Foraging is in my DNA. My Calabrian ancestors who survived the grinding poverty of Italy’s deep south knew better than to overlook anything that nature provided for the picking. Their peasant wisdom accrued in recognizing a good weed from a bad one. The wildness in the food they ate entered their blood stream, imparting the tenacity and rootedness and gumption they would need to prevail in a new world where they themselves would be thought of as ‘a basket of deplorables,’ as despised as the weeds they relished.
Dandelions are delicious. I wish I could explain that to my neighbor. He’s in his nineties, still spry, a Quaker who taught Ghandi for half a century. Every spring, I see him down on his knees, hacking away at the dandelions in his lawn with a vengeance. I happen to know that this man once fed dog food to his children (out of expedience, not out of meanness). If he had only known, he could have fed them dandelions.
The greens I stole from my son’s neighbor’s backyard were tossed into a pot with olive oil and garlic, sautéed and simmered slowly with a can of fava beans. I threw in a sprinkling of chili pepper and added a splash of red wine at the end, which darkens and deepens the flavor. There were no cannellini beans in the corner grocery store, so I bought the fava beans from the Arab who runs the place, and they turned out to be better. The Arab is a refugee from Iraq who flashed his gold tooth and called me his neighbor.
Dandelions with Beans is my signature recipe. I made it as a test for my husband before we were married. I served it to two Hobo Kings. Tip #1: Dandelions must be picked before the flowers bloom. Otherwise, their bitterness will overwhelm. Tip #2: Cut the leaves close to the root. That way, you avoid a lot of dead leaves, tiny sticks, grass blades and debris.
When you sit down at the table, read this poem by Stephen Crane:
In the Desert
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”