Seeing the Salad in the Sidewalk

Seeing the Salad in the Sidewalk

Becoming a father who knows what’s tasty in the urban jungle

Candy Trees by Amanda Smith

As she neared her third birthday, Josephine made a ritual of riding her plastic tricycle before dinner. She’d roll toward the BART station, gathering smiles from commuters walking home. Every day she would pedal about two blocks before deciding she would prefer to find something filthy on the sidewalk to put in her mouth. And then I would carry both her and the tricycle home.

One day, as she was riding along and scanning the ground for something suitably vile to eat, I noticed an exuberant stand of wild fennel growing beside a telephone pole. Wild fennel springs up wherever there is exposed dirt in my neighborhood. You can’t see the bulbs like the fennel you find in supermarkets, but its feathery leaves are sweet, and taste like licorice.

Sensing an opportunity to channel Josephine’s attraction away from sidewalk detritus, I plucked a tender shoot and held it out to her. “Do you know what this plant is?”

She shook her head gravely.

“Fennel. Some people call it candy plant.”
“Candy plant?”

I had her attention. I handed her the sprig.
“Can I eat it?”

And for once, I could say yes. Of course, it’s not totally safe to eat wild plants growing on the street: They could be contaminated with heavy metals, or covered with exhaust, or spritzed with dog pee. But with most things, the dose makes the poison and a little bit wouldn’t hurt her, especially relative to what she gets into on a daily basis. Dog pee isn’t actually hazardous to people, and I’d picked my sprig from near the top of the plant, some four feet off the ground.

Josephine gingerly nibbled the fennel. Then she put the whole thing between her lips and chewed. Then, before I could protest, she pulled two big handfuls of older, tougher greens from lower down—tall-dog height—and wadded them into her mouth.

I have a fantasy about being the kind of father who notices on his commute that the chestnuts on a nearby tree are ripe and brings home an armful to roast—the kind of person who is able to gather up richness where others see nothing worth noting. And so I began studying the edible plants around me. You need local guidebooks to identify plants because there are so many that look alike. But many of the things that are good to eat travel with humans, springing up in the landscapes we disturb. Many of the edible weeds related to dandelions, for instance—bristly oxtongue, prickly lettuce, chicory, hairy cat’s ear—have spread around the world with people.

It turned out that the oxalis, or wood sorrel, which seemed to spring from the earth as fast as I could pull it out, had a pleasantly tart taste. Josephine would command me to stop the stroller and bound off into the underbrush to harvest this “sour grass” and the “candy plant.” We agreed that she would pick only the new growth—fresh young plants were less likely to have something nasty on them, I figured—and I taught her to make her selections from places that would not attract dogs. A few germs and impurities, I decided, were a worthwhile tradeoff for the fun of eating out of the parks and unkempt front yards in our neighborhood.

Eating weeds has allowed me to engage with the natural world in a new way. I chew on peppery nasturtium leaves on my way to work. When I’m making a sandwich and realize we’re out of greens, I just go outside and pick some. I pluck unfamiliar plants and take them home for identification.

When Josephine learned which species she could eat, this knowledge worked transformative magic on her: At mealtime, she normally rejects anything green, but she’ll happily sample what she gathers. As a passive recipient of food, there’s no incentive for her to eat anything but the most pleasing flavors. But when she seeks out her own food, it produces a pronounced shift in cognition. Before, if I serve her something unfamiliar, she acts as if I’m trying to poison her. When she’s sampling wild leaves, on the other hand, she grows intensely contemplative, pondering the challenging new flavors. I suspect it’s true for us all, not just toddlers: It’s as much human nature to resist novelty when someone else is trying to force it on us as it is to open ourselves to novelty when we are seeking it for ourselves.

Josephine can now identify almost as many species as I can. As a game, I’ll sit on our stoop and send her off to search for sorrel or dock, and a few minutes later she’ll come running back with the correct leaf. It still seems miraculous to me that toddlers—all of us, actually—can find one nondescript plant among many. When you learn about an edible plant, something clicks into place.

Adapted from Unseen City, by Nathanael Johnson, Rodale Books, 2016. Copyright 2016 by Nathanael Johnson.

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