Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Edible Flowers

Spring is flowering all around us, and the farmers' markets are alive with lighter, fresher vegetable offerings, like snap peas and shelling peas, petite purple spring onions, and green garlic. I picked up this sample sprig of mustard flowers from Marin Roots Farm at the Ferry Plaza market last Saturday, and it reminded me of the roving flower feasts I plucked out on a friend's farm in Vermont last summer.

There was bergamot, also called bee balm, the red flower whose oil is most familiar to many of us in our morning or afternoon cup of Earl Grey tea. Steamed or applied, it is said to calm inflammations and soreness, both inside and out. Perhaps this balm lulls angry bees away from otherwise stinging thoughts? When I read that it was a carminative, I thought this had to do with its carmine hue, but the truth is much less poetic: it reduces flatulence. [oops update: my little rooty head got confused and it seems that Earl Grey actually comes from the rind of the bergamot orange and not this flower. See the comments section, where Marc has graciously cleared up this factual lapse of mine]

And I chewed borage, whose lavender blooms and peach fuzz are not at all rough and boorish as its name might imply. Possessing its own set of soothing properties, borage is also a traditional decoration for gin-based summer cockails, according to this site. Tuck a sprig in your salad, in your cucumber soup (its leaves taste like cucumber, some say), in your hair, and in your witch's herb box.

More familiar to me were...

the flowering arugula:

the flowering thyme:

and the green buds of the broccoli rabe:

What kind of sustenance do flowers constitute? Can that which satiates the eyes, the nose, and the passing pleasure of the delicate palate, but that leaves the stomach rumbling still be called food?

And what shall we make of the following take on edible flowers from that dog-eared favorite of every impassioned critic of the tyranny of the rational and of the methodical disenchantment of the world that confuses itself for progress, Adorno and Horkheimer's 1947 Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Eating flowers, which still occurs at the dessert stage in the near East, and is known to European children only in terms of cooking with rosewater and candied violets, is promise of a state in which the reproduction of life is independent of conscious self-preservation, and the bliss of the fully contented is detached from the advantages of rationally planned nutrition.

The passage occurs in the context of the episode in The Odyssey in which Odysseus saves his men from the blissful oblivion of the lotus eaters. Adorno and Horkheimer figure the epic's hero as the rational force of labor that charges through the indolent bliss associated with a regression to earlier days, when humankind gleaned "the fruits of the land and sea" rather than actively cultivating their production. For these Frankfurt School thinkers, "It is hardly accidental that the epic attaches the idea of the idle life to the eating of flowers..."

While there may be empirically demonstrable medicinal justifications for the eating of herbal flowers, I like this passage for suggesting that sprinkling flowers onto your salad or soup or grabbing a handful of petals to toss into your mouth while wandering up a grassy hillside is a way of tasting beauty and imagining, if only for a moment, that it might free us from the burdens of clock time and square meals.

Now begins the season for indulging in delirious interludes marked by the eating of flowers. These sheep would agree, wouldn't you say?


Corey said...

Wow. Let's eat flowers together sometime.

Marc said...

When I sprinkle the arugula flowers on a salad when my plants bolt, I'll have a different mindset thanks to your thoughtful post.

Another edible flower is nasturtium, which has a peppery flavor.

Although it is possible that bee balm has the same aroma as Earl Grey tea, the tea is flavored by the rind of the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia) (via Peets). Berkeley Bowl sells these oranges during winter and early spring if you want to try making your own tea or flavoring chocolate or sweets (I don't know how the juice tastes).

kale daikon said...

Thanks, Marc! It's so nice to get an actually helpful comment after all these spambots offering links to nude photos of various celebrities.

So, dear readers, take note: Earl Grey may not cure flatulence in the same way that the bergamot/bee balm flower will.