CHARLES TOWN – Imagine a time and place where there are no supermarkets, and you’re not a wealthy landowner. Scary enough. But to get through the scarcities of winter, you must grow what you can store or preserve for the dark months. If the winters are long, then much of the season might consist of eating pickled or salted cabbage, root vegetables like potatoes and turnips, and dried or smoked meat or fish (if you’re lucky). No salad bars, no citrus, no pizza takeout to mollify a family suffering from cabin fever.
Now imagine the world coming alive again in the spring. What a miracle it would seem, with its emerging edibles and the promise of summer fruits and vegetables, fresh fish and game.
At one time, our forefathers and foremothers knew what they could eat that popped up naturally in the spring, before gardens could be planted: poke salad, ramps, dandelions, lamb’s quarters, wild mustard. There are field guides you can buy which list all of the edible wild plants — and there is an incredible array of them — but before the field guides, people had to know what was safe and what was sorry.
I know a few of them, but not everyone is up to the idea of eating “weeds,” as one friend calls my wild plant diggings. I have another friend from D.C. who pokes fun at me whenever I go out to forage for something that didn’t come in a cellophane bag. He calls my pickings “grass in the salad.” Of course, you shouldn’t try to eat something that you’re not familiar with; I limit myself to the few things I can identify.
So here we are not long past the vernal equinox and the days are slowly getting longer. I think that even in these days of 365/24/7 food availability, spring still means something in our food year. Like our ancestors, we see green leaves and buds sprouting up and out, and that still gets our modern eating and cooking clocks ticking. All that sprouting at least heralds the harvesting of raw and cookable greens, joined by perennials like asparagus and rhubarb poking up.
If you’re lucky, you might even have your secret spot of morels or hen-of-the-woods you’re watching closely. I found a few morels last spring near a couple of old apple trees in a nearby field; I’m praying they’ll come back this year.
Spring also means the opening of farmers markets, and in Jefferson County that means the Sunday market in Shepherdstown and the Saturday market in Charles Town.
I had looked forward to talking to some local growers about this unusual spring; I wondered how the weather has affected their planting and harvesting calendars.
What’s new? In Shepherdstown, there’s Stone Hearth Bakery from Frederick, Md., and Karin Field-Smith with Bluebell Ridge Nursery, a plant vendor from Sharpsburg, Md., specializing in local native plants. I’ve heard that a goat cheese maker will be coming in by summer.
Foodwise, the harvest was partly predictable for this time of year, which is to say comforting: lettuce mixes (and seedings), arugula, spinach, green onions, kale. Much of this is grown in hothouse “tunnels” so the weather was less of an issue. But there were still some issues.
Bill Grantham of Tudor Hall Farm said the frost killed his kale sprouts coming up, but he’s more concerned about the dry spring since a lot of irrigation increases his costs. Bill had some ramps to sell, which he got from a connection in Shepherdstown. Nothing kills ramps, I’ll guess. Asparagus are just beginning.
Maura Balliett was selling Swiss chard and Japanese salad turnips. She notes that she planted beans recently, which is about a month early, since the soil temps are up to 65 degrees, which is more typical of mid-May.
Krissy James of Blueberry Hill from Clear Spring, Md., had tender, pale Brussels sprouts on opening day; they had lasted through the mild winter. Some of her greens, like arugula, are already bolting.
I bought myself some greens for a spring salad, my way of celebrating the lengthening days. If you’d like to add your own foraged touches of “grass” or “weeds,” try a few young dandelion leaves for a pleasant bitterness, not unlike radicchio but free for the taking. The yellow flowers of the wild mustard are showing up to help you find some of its pungent leaves for the salad.
If you want some color in your salad, add some purple violet flowers or redbud flowers, both tasty and pretty. Your family and friends might wonder if you’re suffering from spring fever, but it’ll certainly put some spring in their salad forks.
I’m looking forward to rhubarb pie, asparagus quiche, strawberry shortcake, more fresh green salads (including backyard pickings), local honey, fresh eggs and spring chickens.
Ah, spring. But wait. I almost forgot about the other “greens.” Is that the lawn I hear growing? Yep, it’s the real grass and weeds. They’re enough to make me wish that real spring — a cool spring — would have hung around a lot longer.
George Oliver, a longtime freelance writer and editor, cooks up his column from Martinsburg. Reach him with feedback on this column as well as story ideas via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.