By Amy Crowell
During the severe Texas drought of the 1950s, my grandpa quit farming and went to work for the rural electric cooperative. His parched corn stood crispy in the dust. The cracks in the field were so big that my mom, five at the time, was afraid she’d fall in and never get out. Yet, even though he quit farming on a grand scale, my grandpa never gave up his garden that produced food for his family until the day he died.
Like so many people of his generation, he understood, firsthand, Wendell Berry’s famous line, “Eating is an agricultural act.”
Eating was also an act that brought my grandpa closer to the wild. It was a walk in the woods or, more appropriately, the scrub brush of South Texas; a sweep beneath pecan or mesquite trees to collect the nuts and pods; a trip to the tank to catch a fish. It was a drive west of town to collect agarita berries for wine and jelly; it was a ride in the old El Camino down to the Bushwack, a friend’s ranch, where he would hunt deer, rattlesnakes and cottontail rabbits.
My grandpa knew spring was the best time to find tender, sweet and wild greens. One of my favorites is lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium album) or wild spinach. Lamb’s quarter thrives in disturbed soil and is most commonly found along the edges of gardens and farms, in vacant lots and on roadsides. Lamb’s quarter is easy to identify with alternating, diamond- or triangle-shape leaves traveling up a grooved stem. The underside of the leaves appear to be dusted with a gray or purplish powder. The plant is multi-branching and can grow up to eight- or nine-feet tall.
Most wild greens turn bitter at the first hint of heat, but lamb’s quarter is one of the few that retains its delicious nutty-sweet flavor throughout the season. The young, tender shoots and leaves are edible in spring, and eat the leaves on the older plants in the middle of summer.
Lamb’s quarter can be eaten raw or cooked, and the seeds are also edible and high in protein. Seeds can be collected in late summer through winter by stripping the seed heads off the tops of the plants, drying them and then winnowing the tiny black seeds. Toast and eat the seeds, or mix them with flour for baking. Lamb’s quarter is also nutritionally superior to cultivated spinach. It contains high amounts of vitamins A and C and minerals.
My grandparents lived through the depression and knew hunger like most of us never will. Eating wild foods was, at times, a necessity, not a trend. In this financial and climatic drought, I find it enlightening to remember how our parents and grandparents ate during hard times.