This Summer, I Skipped the Supermarket and Ate My Yard
You see a lawn, I see a salad bar.
If I may ask, did you get weird this summer? Or, now that I think about it, the fairer question would be: In what way did you get weird this summer? Because in our seemingly endless state of global illness, weather crises, economic strain, and political and social upheaval, just going about life all la-di-da might be cause for concern—not that people aren't trying it. A certain amount of my weirdness manifested in panic about food access, and a compulsion to eat my yard.
Yes, I have a yard. I'm a New Yorker who is privileged enough to have a place in Upstate New York, a very old Gothic stone church that my husband bought in the late '90s. When Schoharie County got the all-clear for people to travel up (yes, I quarantined and brought up my own supplies), I spent some time there staring at the weeds and trees, trying to figure out what I could stuff in my mouth and not get sick. This whole homesteading thing isn't a new look I'm trying on as a pandemic personality. I grow durable things like sweet potatoes, sorghum, hearty squash, and occasionally even cotton. I pickle, can, and preserve obsessively, going so far as to put up potted tongue and lunchmeat on occasion. I make booze and bread. Should I run short of utensils, vessels, or weapons, I have an honest-to-goodness masters degree in making crap out of metal. I'm also possessed of a massive case of generalized anxiety disorder and Catholic guilt, so when things get dire, my panic brain immediately turns to survival, namely making the absolute most of every single scrap I have on hand. So it stands to reason that where I once saw just a lawn, I now envisioned a salad bar—and I had to consume all of it.
I battled my hoarding impulses and only harvested what I could reasonably prepare and consume. The deer, coyotes, birds, insects, and assorted wildlife (we refer to them—the rabbits, raccoons, woodchucks, skunks, and chipmunks collectively as "ground wieners") need food to sustain them throughout the seasons, too. I also collect books on urban gardening and practical homesteading, and I pored over every page in an attempt to suss out what on my property I could safely eat. When in doubt, I snapped photos of berries and leaves to send knowledgable friends, and scrutinized them against images from reliable local websites. I remain alive to type this, so I'll share with you what worked and what shall be left to nature to consume.
Dandelion Wine, Greens, and Bread
"Dandelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered," wrote Ray Bradbury in his novel of the same name, which he expanded from a 1957 story for Gourmet magazine. It sounds as if all one has to do is hold a vessel aloft during a light and fragrant breeze, catch a waft, and jam a cork into it. Hahahahahaha no.
A neighbor with a similarly weed-dappled yard tossed whole blossoms and stems into a stockpot, covering them with sugar and cheesecloth and willing the yeast deities to visit. His sprouted a thick, fuzzy layer of mold within a week.
I spent the bulk of an afternoon harvesting leaves and blossoms in little batches (they wilt so quickly), using my fingernails to pluck the sunny petals from their stems until I had two quarts worth. My hands were stained yellow for days. After a good simmer with water, sugar, and citrus juice and peel, plus a good pinch of commercial yeast, they spent weeks hissing in a covered stock pot atop my stove. Once the bubbling stopped, I strained and decanted the wine into bottles and rubber-banded some plastic wrap to the top to see if it would inflate. (It's called the balloon method, but I didn't happen to have one laying around the house, nor am I knowingly neighbors with a party clown, so I went with what I had.) Stories abound of bottles exploding in storage, but thus far everything seems intact. When I poured a socially-distanced glass for my neighbor, he sighed with happiness. I'll share the stash—he has hops I'd like to harvest.
I also sautéed the green leaves with a little garlic and felt smug because these weeds go for something like six bucks a pound in Brooklyn markets, but the real scrounge move was the dandelion bread. After I poured out the wine, there was a residual sludge of spent yeast at the bottom of the pot, and I'd spent the summer obsessing over my wild-fermented pain de Campagne method when the supermarket shelves were bare (and I was afraid to go to the supermarket), so why not have at it? I mixed in flour over the course of a few days, hoping to lure in a few spores, until the dough was petal-bright and bubbling, coaxed it into a loaf, and crossed my fingers. I was rewarded with a sweet, wonderfully floral boule that, frankly, looked like a glossy little butt. I dubbed it a "dandeloaf," and I'm not sorry.
Every year, I gather up a ton, telling myself I'll make cunning British baked goods with the nutmeats, and each year, I fail myself, ending up with foil pans of moldy husks and a bunch of pissed-off squirrels wondering who stole their snacks. This summer, I needed catharsis, and as it happens, I share custody of a sledgehammer with the aforementioned neighbor. The black walnuts I harvested are technically a good bit older than those usually deployed for nocino—a traditional Italian liqueur—but man, I don't have time for your "rules" and your "chronology" and your "actually practical advice."
I suited up in a cruddy old dress and gloves and hard-toed shoes to avoid their notorious deep staining power and a trip to the ER for a broken toe, found a sturdy swatch of pavement, and got to whacking. The inner nuts are currently drying in a foil pan atop my fridge in anticipation of future baking projects, and the hulls are steeping in a covered pot with vodka with ginger, spices, and some citrus peel for decanting in a couple of months. I sneaked a sip last week and it briefly turned my tongue charcoal grey. Spooky season can be always if you're living your life right (see: old Gothic church ownership).
Garlic Mustard Pesto and Roots
I broke even on this one. Garlic mustard is an invasive weed in the Mohawk Valley, so I did my part to thwart it. Forgers more devout than I swear by the roots as a horseradish substitute, but those I dug up were frustratingly woody, likely too elderly to be of much use. I'll try again next year on that front, but the pesto was good enough to make me second-guess buying basil ever again. The leaves pack—as billed—a bright, garlicky pop of flavor that needed only oil, almonds, and cheese to form a vibrant paste that I smeared on bread, vegetables, steak, chicken, and my hands until it ran out.
Sinapis arvensis—a.k.a. charlock, field mustard, and wild mustard—boasts a sassy little yellow flower, and greens that'll jab your sinuses and send tears streaming down your cheeks. I deployed them sparingly in salads and to zing up the allium base of whatever dish I happened to be cooking, but I still have my eyes on the prize: I'm drying out the seeds to make my own mustard at home. We all need things to hope for.
Before you ask, yes, I checked with an expert friend, and this isn't the poison kind of sumac. I'd always thought of these as "trash trees" that would pop up in the yard and I gave them a pass on account of the comical, Seussian protuberances and had no idea this was the sumac I'd been shelling out for at the store like a sucker. But as it turns out, those fuzzy berries are basically free pink lemonade, and I'm drying out a few clusters to grind up and add to my spice collection.
Raspberries, Apples, Pears, and Grapes
The apples on my trees are horrible. Gnarled, scabby little things that I'm more than happy to leave to the ground wieners and increasingly drunken deer who feast on them when the last of the season ferment on the upper branches and plop to the ground. Watching that is better than Quibi—I assume, because who watches Quibi? But I have sworn to myself that this year, I'll harvest the least foul of them for making my own pectin—take that, Big Corporate Jam Supplies!
The pears are foul and mealy, even by pear standards, which are very low. The tree produced a single fruit this year and it tasted like a sandbox. At least the dead branches, like those of the apple tree, are useful in my smoker.
Hooboy, my grapes are nasty, and they're threatening to ensnarl everything I own. A couple of summers ago, before I fully grasped the depths and breadth of their awfulness, I was miffed with my neighbor (a different one) for whacking down some of the vines while he practiced using his yard scythe (no, I didn't say anything—the man has a scythe). Now I want to leave him bottles and loaves at his doorstep. The grapes themselves are these tiny, seedy, sour orbs that I was willing myself to try to figure out how to use, and they came to feel like a burden. All these free fruit just dangling there for the taking, and I was wasting it! I have recently absolved myself from guilt after squishing a few between my fingers to see if they were in fact Canadian Moonflowers masquerading as grapes (you can tell by the shape and quantity of seeds) and the juice stung my skin. I'd harbored fantasies of dolmas, too, but I'm not risking those leaves. Have at it, ground wieners.
The raspberries are wild and free and just, like, fine. If I've managed to preserve anything in this summer of yard-gobbling oddness, I'd like to think it's a sense of perspective.