Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Roots of Spring (A Paean to the Greens of Little City Gardens)


APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

From T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, 1922, which I performed parts of in a poetry class during my undergraduate days of wine and roses. In another English-major rite of passage, I also had to memorize the cheery spring-time opening of The Canterbury Tales that Eliot twists into this morbid, modernist version of April awakenings.

My own experience of spring winds and sunshine sweeping away winter grays in the Bay Area has been decidedly less dramatic and less strewn with the churning of long-dead desires or a pilgrim's wanderlust (I am teaching and dissertating, so in some senses rooted to this place). Still, my heart sounds tentative cheeps of joy at the sight of young shoots and delicately hued petals at the farmers' markets.

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to partake of WV blogmate Erin's baggie of coveted spring salad greens from Little City Gardens, the urban idyll whose 3/4-acre plot sprouts an amazing assortment of bitter, sweet, kicky, crisp, and tender things whose earthy grace can be found in salads at Bar Tartine and often pepper the platings of other independent chefs, including WV friend Leafy Heirloom, né Leif Hedendal. Erin volunteers at the farm every week and in return gets some thank-you trimmings off the harvest heap.

There are so many tiny delights happening in just one handful of this salad, that it's sometimes hard to single them out individually. (The yellow bok choy flowers were an addition from the Marin Roots Farm stand at the Ferry Plaza market, $1.50 per bunch.)


Most of us use forks to eat our salads, but there are some that invite being eaten directly with the hands. The Little City salad is one of these. I adapted almost unconsciously, when my fork ran into some trouble with a resistant spray of turnip greens, while the miniature globed, white turnip dangled awkwardly into the salad bowl. So I put my fork down and picked the turnip up by its leafy hair and proceeded to chomp happily. I began to notice the various shapes and colors—spiky and pronged, smooth rounds and spears, light green speckled with paler green and sometimes with red-purple, the frizzled sprigs of fennel tops, the fuchsia surprise of a tiny radish tucked in among the green, a sudden purple flower (borage?), and a small white bloom, solo orange petals sprinkled throughout like confetti, a lacy yellow bunch of arugula flowers (or was it mustard?).

At one point,  there was a pause in the conversation and Erin said, in a neutral voice, "You can eat those, you know." I looked down at my hands and realized I had been unconsciously pinching off the microscopic root ends of purple mustard sprigs and tossing them to the side while I devoured the weak shoots like a mighty giant.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess...

 Oops. Peach-fuzzy clumps of flower buds, root-vegetable tops, stringy, hairy, rat-tail trailing roots, all these things we normally discard for being too woody, too clumpy, too dirty, too outside the normal purview of our known salads, were meant to be appreciated in this lovingly inclusive mix.

One by one, I put the baby mustard roots in my mouth. They were slightly stronger in flavor, slightly hardier than the leaves, and surprising in their mix of texture and flavor. I imagined the extra kick I tasted was the heart of all the plant's power. But I am just a lowly wordsmith and amateur vegetable lover, not a biologist or farmer. I cannot say, or guess, for I know only this taste from a heap of scattered greens that have soaked up the welcome beatings of the sun.

1 comment:

eek said...

Lovely photos! Borage is a good guess, but I think the purple flower is a chive or onion (or some kind of allium) blossom, and the white one is definitely a wild onion bellflower. I love T.S. Eliot but I disagree about April.