Bitter Greens 

Weed Eating Gets Cosmic in Dandelion Hunter

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"IT TASTES LIKE bitter arugula," said a friend of mine, eating a dandelion leaf. "It's not bad." Several of my friends tried both the leaves and the stalks, and after having eating it plain I tossed several of the leaves with olive oil and balsamic. It tasted like a salad. I also roasted and ground the roots and used them in a coffee drink. It tasted like coffee, but slightly more earthy. The contents of my yard are completely edible.

Dandelion Hunter, just released by Portland author Rebecca Lerner, inspired my experiment in weed consumption. The Portland-centric memoir about urban foraging manages to encapsulate everything that's right and everything that's forehead-slappingly wrong about the culture and attitude of a certain type of person who forages for food.

The book starts out well enough. Lerner attempts to feed herself with things growing out of the sidewalk of NE Alberta, and she has a few notable adventures with eating insects, roadkill deer, and dumpster fodder. Lerner also interviews a fairly eclectic crew of people whom she meets in the urban-foraging community, and early on I found Dandelion Hunter to be a fun piece of journalism about eating things that are normally killed with Roundup. However, the book pretty quickly goes off the rails. The section on herbal medicine doesn't have any real substance: Lerner describes, for instance, making herbal medicine, taking a few drops, and then not being sick a few days later. But lots of diseases go away after a few days—knowing that correlation and causation don't really go together is pretty much Research 101. A little more rigor and a control group or two would have been nice.

What's infuriating about Dandelion Hunter, though, is that precisely what Lerner seems to see as a powerful climax—a chapter on spirituality and plants—is also what undercuts her the most. She's a perfect example of a certain kind of nature lover who doesn't seem to realize that her own spiritual rhetoric is alienating to people who don't already share her views.

And yet, Lerner does have something of a point. What we eat and don't, what is considered a salad green and a weed: A great deal of that is just social convention. I loved turning my weeds into food, but I'm not going to pretend that has any broader, cosmic implications.

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