Step on any lawn, and chances are you’re crushing a plateful of Leda Meredith’s high-performance superfoods.
Like lady’s thumb. That stuff is everywhere, in every front yard you’ve ever seen, but until Leda told me that it’s actually a nutrient-packed cousin of buckwheat, I’d always just mowed it down and shot it out the chute along with bluegrass clippings and severed dandelions. (That’s a confession I’ll soon regret: “Not all the dandelions?” Leda asks, knowing in her heart I’m about to disappoint her. “You don’t even harvest the young ones?”)
Leda is a professional forager, a job made no easier by the fact that she lives in Queens, works in Brooklyn, and spent the better part of her life as a professional ballerina. I invited her over to see if she could find any edibles around my house, and within two steps of the back door, she’s already yanking and snipping. “Ah, look at this! Wild mustard,” she says, stuffing some weeds into a plastic grocery bag. “Here’s burdock… and lady’s thumb… and look up there!” She points toward the edge of the property, where a villainous patch of purplish stalks has been growing for years despite my attempts to wipe it out with everything short of Agent Orange. I’ve literally tried firepower, and the stuff keeps growing back right through the scorched earth.
“That’s pokeweed,” she says.
“That’s poison,” I reply. “Goats won’t even eat it, and they like poison ivy.”
Here in Lancaster County, we sons and daughters of Pennsyltucky have many differences but one common foe: pokeweed. We’ve all got it, and we all hate it.
“It’s only harmful when it’s mature,” Leda explains. “When it’s young—right when the shoots are coming up—it’s healthy and delicious, like fresh asparagus.” Pokeweed is also an ultratough perennial, as years of frustration have taught me firsthand; you can hack the crap out of it, and every spring its deep taproot will still send up new growth.
Before long, Leda has a crazy amount of greenery crammed into her foraging bags and she’s ready to whip up a meal. I lead her into the kitchen, molding my face into what I hope is a polite amount of phony enthusiasm. Leda is a whiz and this is a fun little experiment, but I know that once she’s gone, there are better odds of me eating human flesh than anything in my lawn…
Until I catch a whiff of what she’s up to at the stove, and my stomach starts changing my mind.
I first tracked down Leda because of an odd experience I had on Crete. I hiked across the island several times while researching a crazy adventure by a band of World War II Resistance fighters, and everywhere I went, I came across people plucking weeds from stone walls and sidewalks. Anywhere life could grow, some Cretan was swooping down and carrying it home.
Where, I discovered, it was all being tossed together in the ancestral island wonder food known as horta. Which is? Well, here’s how Leda puts it:
“Every spring, there came a moment when Yia-Yia Lopi, my great-grandmother, stubbed out her Kool menthol cigarette and declared that it was the right day to gather horta in the park,” she describes in her wonderful memoir, Botany, Ballet, and Dinner from Scratch. “The timing had to be just right: too soon and the leaves would be too small, too late and they’d be too bitter. Yia Yia was the expert on when to go because she’d grown up picking wild edibles in Greece.” Back in the kitchen, the women steamed their free-range pickins and mixed them with olive oil and chopped garlic. “Their eyes would gleam,” Leda notes. “The first wild greens of spring were better to them than chocolate.”
The trick to making a tastier-than-M&M’s horta is all in the assembly. You can’t just chuck in any weed or too many of one type. Crete alone has more than 100 varieties of wild-growing edibles, so the true horta artist is constantly adding and adjusting that day’s recipe by how much dandelion, purslane, lamb’s-quarter, chicory, sorrel and other varietals are available. The greens are then braised and tossed with garlic, pepper, and a citrusy squirt of lemon. Add a little olive oil for fat and flavor, and you’ve got a nutritional powerhouse of iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, plus an alphabet soup of vitamins.
“Stomach problems, skin disorders, breathing difficulties, even emotional uneasiness—you can treat them all with so-called weeds,” Leda says. Her mother was a ballerina with a Los Angeles ballet company, so Leda was mostly raised by her grandmother, a Greek immigrant who lived in San Francisco and often foraged in Golden Gate Park. Leda later followed her mother into dance, and during her years on tour, she’d often shock her fellow ballerinas by turning up for rehearsal with her arms covered in angry scratches after a morning spent rooting among nettles and greenbriers. After she retired from full-time performing, Leda went back to school to study ethnobotany and turned herself into one of America’s very few professional foragers.
Now, Leda can cruise through Brooklyn’s none-too-culinary-looking Prospect Park and scavenge together a meal in minutes. “The parks department has a limited weed-control budget, which is great for me,” she says. “People have no idea what’s right here.” One of her favorite spots, just for the irony, is right outside the fancy-pants Park Slope Food Coop. Inside, lamb’s-quarter sells for rib-eye prices of $7.50 a pound; outside, it grows free along the curb. “It’s too bad we’ve developed this mentality that if it’s free and natural, it can’t be good,” Leda says.
Horta is such a superfood that you can even fry it into fast food and it’s still more nutritious than any produce you can buy. Researchers from Austria and Greece performed a chemical analysis of a Cretan fried pie in 2006 and were struck by two things: the sheer variety of the horta filling and the sky-high levels of vitamins, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids. The bite-sized crescents called kalitsounia are typically packed with a combination of fennel, wild leeks, sow thistle, hartwort, corn poppy, sorrel, and Queen Anne’s lace, all of it growing wild. “In most cases,” the researchers concluded, “the wild greens had higher micronutrient content than those cultivated.”
“These will blow your mind,” Leda says.
Out of my oven, she’s pulling a cookie tray of garlic-mustard greens baked into chips—and, good gravy, she’s right. They’re salty and tangy and perfectly crisped. On another tray are gingko nuts, those hard little kernels found in those gooshy stinkberries that litter city sidewalks. Leda shucked the mushy coating and baked the kernels, then tossed them in soy sauce. While I’m demolishing the snacks, Leda is spooning out a pesto she whizzed together from field garlic, dandelion, bishop’s weed, and black walnuts. She’s serving it over pasta, but often she’ll use it to dress a salad of roasted root vegetables: carrots, apple, red onion, potato, parsnips, and celery root. Today’s main course is a little meatier: broiled flank steak, sliced thin and sprinkled with chopped field garlic.
It’s a fabulous meal but a vexing problem: Without a chain-smoking Yia-Yia around to show me the ropes, how can I trust what I’m plucking? Books are helpful, but not enough: Wild greens in pictures all kind of look alike, and they’re usually photographed in bloom, when they’re prettiest but past their prime. If you eat the wrong greens, your best-case scenario is missing out on the nutritional and medicinal benefits you’re looking for. Worst case: Poison Control.
So Leda offers two bedrock rules:
1) First and last: “When in doubt, leave it out.”
2) Every moment in between: Let xenía be your guide.
Xenía is Greek for compassion, and along with strength and skill, it’s one of the three key ingredients in hero training. But the ancients had a much grittier notion of compassion than we do: Deep down, they realized it has nothing to do with sweetness, or charity, or even trading favors. It’s really about saving your own ass, not someone else’s. Compassion is your social spiderweb, a protective netting of highly sensitive strands that connects you to your kinfolk and alerts you the instant one of them runs into the kind of trouble that can find its way back to you. We like to put on our halos and think of compassion as an angelic virtue, but it really springs from our raw animal need to figure out what’s going on around us and the smartest way to respond.
Do compassion right, and you instantly detect changes in body language, voice pitch, and behavior. You hear what isn’t being said and see what isn’t being shown. Compassion demands patience, focus, and mental retention, but the payoff is self-preservation: You may look like a saint, but by helping those in need, you’re fortifying your own fortress of friends. Special Forces fighters call this “situational awareness”—a constant mental scan of your environment so you’re always up to the second on the best and worst way out of any situation.
Sounds way easier than knife throwing, Stotan training, and Parkour, right? But simple as it seems, xenía is tougher to develop than strength and skill, because it takes longer and isn’t nearly as fun. You have to dial down your focus to just one thing, paying attention to how it’s changed from yesterday to today and compares to other just-one-things you’ve studied before. The benefits can be life-changing, which explains why Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has sold way more copies than a book that boring really should. All 419 pages can be boiled down to one gorgeous point: Train your attention-paying muscles—your “eyes that hear and ears that see”—and they’ll serve you wherever you go, no matter what you do. Awareness is the all-access laminate, a lift ticket you can punch on any slope.
And it all begins, Leda says, with this droopy stalk in her hand.
“Start with something you see all the time, like lady’s thumb,” she tells me. She holds it up on her palm so I can see the wilted-looking leaves, the tiny red seed balls, the darkish smudge like a thumbprint that inspired its nickname. “Those are your identifiers. Soak them in, and you’ll instantly recognize lady’s thumb like a friend’s face. Then you add one more plant—like garlic-mustard— and pretty soon, you’ll be seeing friends all over the place.”