Post #5 from our Easter week in Burgundy.
I think, whether we like it or not, wars often become the great shared chronological landmarks of our lives—massive common containers of memory and loss and fear. More so if we live on their front lines. Less so if we only see their wreckage and life-stealing cruelty on TV. But there they are. Standing, for all of us, immovable markers of time. You never forget where you are when you see the first bomb of a conflict drop. You never lose that sickening realization that a person, like you, sits under its devastating plunge to earth. Here we, mankind, go again.
My mother-in-law lived through World War II in the French countryside, escaping the bombs that were feared to fall on Paris. The friendships she formed during those harrowing years are strong today. As would be her instincts not to waste food, to preserve what you have, to appreciate the gifts that nature gives you if Alzheimers hadn’t messed with her mind, her world order, every memory she had, and even with those instincts about value.
Whenever she saw dandelions pushing up in the fields, gutters and sidewalks of our little Burgundy town, she would bend down agilely to gather them up. No beauty—even in the form of a weed—would be wasted on her watch. She would hold them out for me to examine, stroking the leaves free of dirt like fine merchandise. “We would eat these,” she says. “We would eat whatever we could find.” Pause. “They’re good sautéed. A little bitter, but very good. You can add pancetta (she speaks to me in Italian even though she’s French) if you have it.”
I don’t see a dandelion today that doesn’t remind me of her. Of her war. Of her life here during those difficult years. Her memories have somehow become ours, inseminating themselves in our minds, so that we don’t forget something we didn’t live through, if such a thing is possible. One memory multiplying itself over the generations, like the flower itself. This Easter, the otherwise green fields were full, already, of the white wispy leftovers that dotted them like a healthy cotton crop. Millions this year. How many million more, next year?
Pissenlit the flower is called in French. Or, similar to English and Italian, dent-de-lion. Nothing in the flowering weed category could be more banal, yet these ubiquitous yellow buttons pack an emotional punch with me, when I see them growing there next to the stone wall and think of her picking them as a child and eating their leaves for dinner.
But why not? They are edible. You can see that in “finer” restaurants, where they make up part of the wild green salad. Even Mark Bittman of the New York Times in his book How To Cook Everything weighs in with a very Italianate version of dandelions (Italians prepare spinach and other greens like this, minus the stock and the lemon wedge): Saute garlic and hot pepper flakes in olive oil and cook for about 1 minute. Add dandelion greens (the younger ones are tenderer and less bitter) and 1/2 cup of stock (chicken, beef or vegetable), and cook covered until wilted and just tender, but still firm. About 5 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook until the liquid has evaporated and the greens are quite tender. About 5 minutes more. Taste for seasoning. Add salt and red or black pepper to taste. Add minced garlic if desired, and cook for a minute more. Serve hot with a lemon wedge.
And gratitude. That would be a good garnish as well. “Thanks that there are no bombs dropping here, now. Thanks that I can eat what grows under my feet. Thanks for all of it.”