Feasting on Backyard Weeds

  • Peter Gail holds his favorite weed: the spinach-like lamb's quarters.

Your barbeque grill isn’t the only place to find food in your backyard. There are lots of plants out there to eat, but most of us call
them weeds. The GLRC’s Julie Grant reports:


Your barbeque grill isn’t the only place to find food in your backyard.
There are lots of plants out there to eat, but most of us call
them weeds. The GLRC’s Julie Grant reports:

Peter Gail of Cleveland loves food. He’s got a lot of meat on his bones.

“Gee, you can’t get me to stop. I start eating this stuff and I can’t stop. It’s terrible, it’s terrible, it’s addictive (laughs).”

But his favorite foods grow right in his backyard, and probably yours. Gail is what’s
known as an ethno-botanist. He’s on a mission to teach more people about how to eat the
plants growing all around their houses. His latest converts are a troop of boy scouts:

“My grandson was one of the boys in this Boy Scout troop. And when I got over to his
house three days after we got back from scout camp, he grabbed the bag, the plastic bag
of weeds that his mother weeded out of the yard that day and dragged it over to me on the
patio and said find the edible plants in here and show me them.”

Gail says the yard becomes more exciting to most kids when they can sit down and
munch. His own love of the backyard snack started when he was just a boy. His family
faced some tough times. They were saved by a common weed known as lamb’s quarters.

“My dad died and left the family with no money. A friend told my mother we could live
off lamb’s quarters. For six months we went out and every day my brother and I would
gather the young tops of lamb’s quarters and then bring them into the house and my
mother would make them into every kind of spinach dish imaginable, until she learned
how to make a living. And then after that she still, we still liked the plant so we still ate it a lot.”

These days you could pay a lot for lamb’s quarters in a gourmet food store. They’re sold
as Belgium spinach. Or, Gail says, you could just take a quick look around your yard.

Today we’re walking around a backyard in suburban Cleveland. We find lamb’s quarters
at the base of a tree. Some say you can recognize the leaves because they look like the
hindquarters of a lamb. Gail thinks they look more like the silhouette of a Christmas tree:

“You’ll notice it has, when you’re looking down on it, it looks like somebody spilled a
little bit of talcum powder on the very top. It has that little dusting of white that is right on the top and on the underside of the leaves you see the same dusting, but taste one leaf, taste a leaf of that.”

And it does taste like spinach, but the USDA reports it’s even more nutritious than
Popeye’s favorite treat.

“It doesn’t take any cooking. It can be eaten raw, or it can be cooked. It will interfere, if you eat too much raw, with the assimilation of both iron and calcium, so you usually want to cook it. It makes a great addition to omelets, great cooked green, great quiches. Any recipe you use spinach in, you can use lamb’s quarters.”

There’s a lot more than just lamb’s quarters in the yard to eat. This time of year, Peter Gail also recommends sautiing the buds or petals from orange and yellow daylilies. He’s also a big fan of dandelions. He suggests looking for the young, tender leaves because they’re less bitter. Gail says he believes dandelions were brought to America by Italian
immigrants. They’re used in lots of Italian recipes:

“80 percent of the things we call weeds were vegetables brought here by immigrants.
That’s one of the reasons most of the things we call weeds in our backyards aren’t
indigenous plants. They aren’t plants that were from America. They’re plants that are
from Europe and Asia and from South America.”

Gail says over time those traditional foods escaped from gardens into the wild. After
World War II, things changed. Most people started buying food at the grocery store and foraging became unpopular. He says only the poor searched the yard for food:

“One by one, as generations went by, the kids didn’t learn as much the second generation,
the third generation they knew nothing. And by the time we reach where we are now,
almost everybody can walk right by the most nutritious plant going, the most commonly eaten
plant back in the 30s and 40s, and not even have a clue what it is.”

Gail is trying to change that. He wants people to become reacquainted with these plants
so we don’t recklessly destroy them. He travels around the country giving workshops,
taking people on neighborhood forages, and teaching cooking classes. Gail believes we
might need these plants again someday.

For the GLRC, I’m Julie Grant.

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