In this series, Dylan Gordon considers cookbooks, memoirs and fictions about wild, foraged foods. Reviewed in this essay: A Feast of Weeds by Luigi Ballerini, University of California Press, 2012.
Field guidebooks often overwhelm me with their formidable erudition. First in each entry come the botanical descriptors, identifying features of leaf and root that mostly escape my untrained eyes. Last are the lists of medicinal uses, spotted with the trade terms of herbalists, like cholagogue and carminative, which elude me no matter how many times I look them up. And the main thing I’m interested in—what does it taste like? If mentioned at all, that’s buried somewhere in the middle, often summed up in one lone word: “Edible.” Or even more dismaying: “Inedible.” How exasperating!
So this book, subtitled “a literary guide to foraging and cooking wild edible plants,” excites me despite the fact that it maintains that habit of exhaustive catalogue. It has beautiful, detailed illustrations of the plants in question. It has delicious-sounding recipes of a southern Italian bent, for Mallow with Oil and Lemon, or Stewed Milk Thistle. And it also has erudition, in spades.
Each species is introduced by an essay situating the plant in literary, medical, or even mythological history. One, most typical, recaps debates between doctors medieval and ancient about whether blackberries, for instance, “harm the choleric, hot stomach” or instead are “a specific for affections of the mouth or eyes.” Another, on blueberries, offers a close reading of the lyrics of Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” “a text of considerable sophistication…with a teleological hold.” The piece on bay laurel leaves reconstructs their place in Greek mythology and Roman literature with assistance from the Metamorphoses of Ovid and the works of Petrarch. Every single entry (there are 31) offers this astounding wealth of detail, evoking the long, rich presence of these species, some familiar today and others more forgotten, in the imaginations and lives of the West.
One might argue that it is all a bit much, but steadfast attention to detail is a feature of both the botanic and academic genres. And Ballerini injects his commentaries with wit and vigour, carefully mustering the most startling, illuminating or sophisticated aspects of the evidence and insights he commands. The result will appeal to any reader looking for a deeper treatment than most guides give of how wild edibles are thought of and used, whether as herbal medicines, botanical wonders or tasty treats.