One of the reasons Anastasia holds garden “weeds” in high esteem is many of them are edible. We learn about it straight in the very beginning of the Ringing Cedars Series, even before Anastasia has a chance to share with us her views on gardening and nutrition. In the beautiful description of their trek into the depth of the wild forest, Vladimir notes how she would “tear off some little blade of grass and… eat it” (Anastasia, Chapter 3: “Beast or Man”).
But just like Vladimir, we cannot help the feeling that wild-growing plants must be somehow “inferior” to the greens and vegetables which adorn our gardens and our fields. Indeed, if it was not the case, how could humanity possibly justify all the effort of raising them? And it would seem that our experience vindicates this point of view: go taste a dandelion leaf – it’s bitter!
Since we moved to the country, however, more than once the abundance of wild-growing greens, fruit, berries, nuts, and mushrooms would make me view my honest gardening efforts as a peculiar ritual. Even if you garden “organically,” and sow it “the Anastasia way,” you still need to protect seedlings from frost, then drought, then raccoons, birds, squirrels, groundhogs, and deer (at which point your garden plot starts to look more like a high-security correction facility). Eventually, though, bugs get most of it. And after you proudly put the fruit of your labors on your child’s plate, he makes a fuss about eating it… because “he’s full – he ate lamb’s quarters!” That’s enough to make anybody wonder, so I took on Anastasia’s advice (see The Space of Love) and started to learn from my children.
One thing I noticed straight away is that they can spend half a day in blackberry brambles along the road and come home all happy with mouths purple from the berry juice. Or we can sit for hours cracking and eating wild black walnuts. They would enthusiastically gather and hull walnuts, but they don’t particularly like “working in the garden.”
Another thing that became quite obvious is that “taste” – what we consider “yummy” or “yucky” – is as much a product of social conditioning as it is a property of food itself. That roaches or dandelion roots are supposedly not as good as crackers or carrots children learn from us. Seeing my son stuffing his mouth full of lady bugs made me shed many of my preconceived notions about what we should eat – and how. And while I have not entirely switched to a lady bug diet as yet, we do consume over a pound of “wild crops” every day. Actually, it’s not that difficult: as a Russian proverb goes, “your tongue’s a smart guy – it can surely tell what’s dung and what’s pie.”
Many wild foods are, in fact, very tasty. But there’s more to it. Even a small quantity of wild-harvested greens, nuts, or fruit would often leave you feeling “full, but not heavy” – quite different from many “regular” foods. This property of wild-growing nuts in particular has even been confirmed by scientific studies.
Add to it the fact that you don’t have to buy – or even grow – the food that nature has produced all by itself, and Anastasia’s way of “eating like breathing” becomes not just alluring, but practicable.
So why is it that we do not use the wild-growing foods that are readily available where we live? Why is it that even the specialized texts I consulted propound the notion that “weeds” were historically only consumed by “poor” people and only in the times of famine? Does Anastasia have a good reason to believe that cultivated foods slow down our pace of thinking and wild foods help accelerate it?
While digging for answers, I’ve unearthed so many fascinating facts – all of which seem to confirm almost every aspect of what Anastasia said about human nutrition. For instance, it turns out that wild-growing greens were very widely consumed until quite recently. I am not talking about the ancient “hunter-gatherer” societies, which we consider “primitive” today. An ordinary peasant from the 19th-century Russia would put to shame many a raw food enthusiast of today! Even the word borscht, which we now use to refer to a beet soup, originally meant nothing other but “raw greens.” Leo Tolstoy was saying: “A peasant goes hungry not when there’s no wheat, but when there’s no lamb’s quarters.”
Not only that, but introduction of many cultivated staples of today was so unpopular that it had to be effected by force. For more than two hundred years Russian monarchs including Peter the Great had been trying in vain to introduce potatoes, until in the mid-19th century troops had to be used to compel peasants to plant potatoes. It led to a wave of “potato revolts” which could only be suppressed with army’s help!
History books, of course, write it all off on the backwardness of the uneducated populace: “Just imagine, they thought that potatoes heralded the coming of the end of the world! Ha-ha-ha!” But wait a minute: isn’t it strange that nobody had had to introduce nettles or aiseweed by force (“aise” means “comfort”), and that even when starving, Russian peasants would rather eat bark of basswood trees than potatoes? Hm! Why would that be the case? You really can’t be as “backwards” as that if your life’s at stake. But can it be that my ancestors had a gut feeling (put intended) that potatoes were not the right food for them?
Well, you might say, we’ve been eating potatoes and other cultivated crops for centuries now and nothing bad had happened. It is true that we are able to live on a modern diet, but could it be that something has been lost in our conversion from wild-growing plants to cultivated crops? I never cease to be amazed at how strong and enduring people seemed to be in the old times. The legendary heroes of folk tales aside, Leo Tolstoy describes how ordinary peasant workers could be unloading railroad cars for 36 hours straight, without any sleep and only two 1-hour breaks for taking food. How many of us, with our “balanced diets” and “health foods” would be capable of the same?
Does it mean that we have to wean ourselves from the habit of buying food and switch from salad greens to chickweed once and for all? Not at all! As Anastasia was wisely saying, any change should be gradual – it took many generations to condition us to like the food we eat today, so the rediscovery of the only truly natural food should likewise be slow. And by no means should it be forced like they did with potatoes – or your family will arise on a “wild chives revolt!”
“Give me lamb’s quarters for a dollar!”
I’d like to share with you one of my favorite “wild” recipes. It is delicious and nobody will know it’s “wild” until you reveal to them just why it tastes so good (at which point it’s already too late)! It includes lamb’s quarters – a ubiquitous “weed” you can find almost everywhere in temperate climate. It is rich in protein and is nutritionally in many respects superior to spinach, but is very hardy and disease-free, tolerates drought and pests, and is grown in many parts of the world as a garden green. It is a member of the amaranth family, so it is a close relative of garden orach and quinoa. Actually, lamb’s quarters seed is an edible grain, too. You can eat the tender leaves and shoots. Even if the plant is big and the main stem has become coarse, it is covered with young side shoots that remain tender even in the heat of the summer. This Lamb’s Quarters Corn Bread does involve cooking, but lamb’s quarters have a full-bodied flavor and can be enjoyed raw – I’ve been offering its leaves to everyone including my FedEx carrier and a neighbor who’s a retired State trooper – and they both continue to say hello – it’s that good! Anyway, enough talking! Let’s find our mouths a better use!
Corn Bread with Lamb’s Quarters
3 cups cornmeal
2 tsp baking soda
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp honey
2 cups water
2 TBSP apple vinegar
1/2 tsp sea salt
two big bunches of fresh lamb’s quarters leaves and stems (about 8 oz)
1. Mix water, vinegar, oil, honey.
2. Add cornmeal, baking soda, salt – mix well. Let it sit for 20-30 minutes so it won’t taste “grainy.”
3. Grate carrots, cut onion – cook them on a medium-heat pan until onion turns golden brown, then add it to the mix.
4. Cut lamb’s quarters finely, add them to the mix and mix well.
5. Pour into a greased baking dish and bake at 350 degrees F (180 degrees Celsius) for 30-35 minutes.
Serve with a lentil soup or any other lentil- or bean-based dish. Enjoy!