Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Miner's Lettuce

In a cavern, in a canyon,
Excavating for a mine
Dwelt a miner forty niner,
And his daughter Clementine.

One day, Clementine looked at her pa, who was lookin' rather run down and pale, and said, "Pa."

"Yes, darlin'?" he replied.

"I been thinkin'..."

"'Bout what hon?"

"'Bout how you been lookin' mighty pale lately, kinda worn out and your teeth've been fallin' out. Kinda scurvy like."

"Well, you might be right about that. I been feelin' right low lately. Thought it was all that fool's gold I been turnin' up near the mill. Nothin's been pannin' out."

"Pa, what I think is, I think you been eatin' too much baked beans and sourdough bread. And not enough greens."

The miner cocked his head and scratched at his dark beard, frowning. Clementine hurried out the back door of the shack and stooped down in the grass to gather what looked like tiny, bright green lily pads hanging off long stems, each one with a sprig of dainty white flowers at its center. Back in the kitchen, she took the bunch from her apron and laid it down on the table in front of her pa.

The miner leaned over to inspect the offering. His scalp was sunburned under his thinning hair and the back of his neck was creased in dirt. "Aw hell, woman," he spat between chapped lips. "This condition o' mine ain't nothin' some whiskey and sardines won't cure. Them greens're for rabbits 'n' little girls." But upon seeing her stricken face, he relented. "All right, darlin', don't you cry, I'll try a few. Just ta please you."

And as he tasted this humble weed he'd looked at without seeing a thousand times on his way past the pines down to the river, his eyes lit up. "Well, I'll be damned, missy. That stuff's like a little burst o' lemon rain. That's real nice, yes indeed."

Clementine beamed and handed him a tin cup of water to wash it down. She knew if he kept eating that funny lettuce, he'd perk up and their salad days as a family might last just a few years longer. She wasn't ready to be married yet to one of the rough young men who came whistling round after dinner to catch a glimpse of her pretty face and tried to make her smile with their crude jokes.

It wasn't too long before the other miners took a liking to this surprise salad that contained the kind of vitamins their bacon didn't (namely "C"), and once again, scurvy belonged solely to the pirates.

Dreadful sorry to Clementine, but the native Americans were onto this green trail munchee long before the miners got credit for it.

Once upon a time it was called Indian lettuce, though also favored in English cookery, as Mary Elizabeth Parsons recounts in her 1897 book The Wild Flowers of California:

The succulent leaves and stems are greedily eaten by the Indians, from which it is called 'Indian Lettuce.' Mr. Powers, of Sheridan, writes that the Placer County Indians have a novel way of preparing their salad. Gathering the stems and leaves, they lay them about the entrances of the nests of certain large red ants. These, swarming out, run all over it. After a time the Indians shake them off, satisfied that the lettuce has a pleasant sour taste equaling that imparted by vinegar. These little plants are said to be excellent when boiled and well seasoned, and they have long been grown in England, where they are highly esteemed for salads.

Some might call it a weed, but this relative of purslane that grows in abundance almost everywhere you look in Northwestern park land is taking gold from fools at the Ferry Plaza Market for $6/lb. The Presidio and Golden Gate Park have great, secluded patches for the discerning eye to find. But if you don't have the inclination to wander among the trees instead of among tourists and/or you have a phobia of dog pee (or ants), then you should try the impeccable "wild-crafted" specimens at the Marin Roots farm stand.

Erin and I found this miner's lettuce growing in a small cemetery in Forestville, near the Russian River. Their souls are lost and gone forever, but the grasses and flowers grow so sweetly over the gravestones and the spiders weave webs between the trees that glisten in the fairy light, so that the mournful mind is made quiet by the scene.

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