Sunday, May 23, 2010

Salad Days

These are salad days. What does it make you think of?

For me, it conjures days of delicious greens and things dug fresh from the warmed soil, of new buds and shoots that grow secretly overnight and must be snapped up and enjoyed before the sun gets too hot.

When my blog/room-mate Erin told me that Salad Days was the chosen name of the dinner she was hosting with her man-guy Nick in honor of his parents' visit from Canada and his aunt's arrival from England, as well as a celebration of spring's rolling into summer, I first thought of the Young Marble Giants song "Salad Days" that goes:

Think of salad days
they were folly and fun
They were good, they were young

Then the invitation, designed by the charmingly talented artist Christian Robinson, conjured a friendly gathering of animated creatures, including a crowned ginger root and a swinging, martini-sipping horse:

Christian also painted a table runner and matching vase for the occasion, shown at the very top with the garlic scapes I got from Happy Boy and arugula flowers plucked from a friend's garden.

But it wasn't until the dinner date got closer that I learned that the phrase originally comes from Shakespeare (that unparalleled tinkerer of the English language who gave us other gems like "sea change" and "green-eyed" monster).

It appears at the very end of Act I of Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra, who has fallen in love with Marc Antony, reflects on her earlier passion for Julius Caesar, casting it off as a relic of indiscretion from:

My salad days,
When I was green in judgment, cold in blood...

It's a curious line, especially the part about being both young and "cold in blood," because one tends to associate youth with hot-headed explosions. After thinking it through for some time, though, I've come to see it as a suggestion that youth often confuses its bursts of feeling for real passion while being incapable of the emotional depth and tempering experience necessary for producing the actual heat of love, that the so-called passion of youth is all cold surfaces, flimsy and transitory like salad leaves. (Does judgment, once colored green, mature into a browny-red fervor, then?)

Though Cleopatra tried to disparage her youth in order to more fully embrace her present lover, "salad days" has since taken on a more nostalgic tone in its usage, referring not only to youthful inexperience but also as another version of "halcyon days," the good ol' days when one lived like a grasshopper in summer, on top of the world with no heavy cares (as in the Young Marble Giants version).

In the days leading up to their ambitiously vegetastic dinner, Erin and Nick worked like ants but not without some grasshopper whistling as they went.

The almost entirely home-made menu included:

- hand-rolled tortellini filled with fresh English peas, fava beans, ricotta, and the neighborhood-foraged mysterious minty leaves that the commentary consensus says is catnip

- hummus blended with green garlic, marjoram, and Meyer lemon

- a salad fantasia of wild arugula, mustard greens, miner's lettuce, spinach, purple, velveteen borage, and mizuna rabe dabbed with tiny yellow flowers, all mingled with arugula and radish blossoms

- nettle pesto to spread on crusty Acme and Tartine bread

- favorites from Erin's fondly remembered trip to Spain: deep-fried guincale croquettes and espinacas con garbanzos

- a dessert to bring forth that tragicomic combination of crying eyes and upturned lips: gooey-centered chocolate cake with homemade ice cream in two flavors, strawberry cream and Meyer lemon

The mingling merry meal was so divine that no one stopped to take pictures, and all that was documented is what came before and after. Thus is the nature of salad days: consumed quickly and left only as a trace in the memory.

You can read Nick's account of the night here.

Earlier that day, I sat in the park and composed a ukulele song inspired by the theme, which I performed after dinner. I leave it for you below as yet another interpretation of what "Salad Days" might mean, filled with as many vegetable puns as I could think of and at least one image inspired by Christian's invitation. You can try to listen for them or just read them in the lyrics. I might have looked more light-hearted and green in judgment if I hadn't been trying so hard to get all the notes right.

Salad Days

Lettuce take you away to a place that's green,
Where the mint runs wild and ginger is queen.
Foxes play a tune on the fiddlehead fern;
Silly goats are lickin' garlic just to make their lips burn.

'Scape with me up the ramps to the river.
We’ll pluck chanterelles 'til our hearts start to quiver.
And spice things up with our arugula ways,
Then lose ourselves in these salad days.

Salad days dressed with lemon sunshine
Lying in the grass drinkin' dandelion wine
We'll bury our noses in parsley and sage
And lose ourselves in these salad days.

Turnip the beets, you oughta shake that fennel;
The flowers on the wall'll get stung by nettles.
Oh the clover is swinging and the carrots say peas
Won't you sing our fava song? It'll radish the bees!

Endive with me to the bottom of the pond.
We'll paddle like frogs to the artichoke frond,
Then cool things down in a nasturtium haze
And lose ourselves in these salad days.

Salad days dressed with lemon sunshine
Lying in the grass drinkin' dandelion wine
We’ll crown our heads in parsley and sage
And lose ourselves in these salad days.

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