A most earnest message from my 24 year old self...
I have a terrible sense of direction. I’m one of those people who lives very much inside herself and though, while in some contexts this is adaptive, when navigating it’s not in service to my survival. Of course, with the advent of “way-finding for dummies” like google maps, and now smartphones, my already minuscule aptitudes have further atrophied. Eh, as a wise friend always reminds me, “ain’t nobody perfect.”
I’m great at following my heart and intuiting my way through problems but when tasked with relying solely on my observational skills or intellect, I need to get out of autopilot and focus. So while I am not about to go on a solo wilderness adventure where orienteering skills could save my life, I’m bushwhacking through a different jungle of sorts, trying to make sense of 28 different vitamins and minerals, their metabolic pathways, sources, deficiency/toxicity symptoms, and functions. The test is next week and I feel a little lost.
I remember learning over 10 years ago from naturalist and nature educator Jon Young, that a great way to find your way through unfamiliar territory is to tell yourself a story about what you observe and patterns you witness. He did a little experiment with people in the Pine Barrens, a forest in New Jersey notoriously vast and easy to lose oneself in. The people who made up little stories along the way were able to find their way back, better than the bread crumb method! Now I can’t find this tale but will continue to look to verify it for the curious, but source material aside, it’s certainly stuck with me all this time.
Averse to rote memorization, I may tap into this naturalist wisdom and make up some stories about vitamins this week in the hopes I can sidestep the Saint Bernard rescue teams. In service of this mission, Carly’s Cupboard is on the quieter side this week (and possibly next) with mostly the standard offerings. I’m looking forward to my three weeks out of the books and into the fields, mountains, and ocean (?!) to follow. And plenty of time wandering through the inner and outer worlds of spirit where an equal vat of wisdom can be found.
Last weekend I got to visit my family in Rhode Island in celebration of my mother’s birthday (which is actually today, happy birthday mom). The highlight was crabbing.
Blue crabs would be my preferred last meal, and my mother’s too. She’s part crab both literally-- born and raised in Baltimore, her cells pulsing with 62 years of countless crustacean meals fragrant with Old Bay---and in her essence too. She was born in the time of the crab, Cancer, and she’s a homebody, nest maker, family-centric, care taking, mother to the nth degree and, she doesn’t take any shit. She’s basically a crab fractal. So, crabs to me don’t just mean delicious, they mean home and an ocean of nurturance.
My dad used to take us frequently when we were young and lived near the Delaware bay, so much that his friends at work joked we would get crabbing scholarships to college. Sadly, for much of my young adulthood the rising ocean temperatures and algae blooms from agricultural runoff have suffocated parts of the bay where crabs live. They struggle because they don’t have enough oxygen to survive. In my lifetime I’ve watched abundance turn to scarcity. Crabs don’t actually need a tremendous amount of oxygen, so once they can’t breathe, those sections are effectively “dead zones.” With their scarcity, market prices have skyrocketed and this tradition of eating whole steamed crabs has been mostly a thing of the past for my family.
Yet, since moving to Rhode Island we’ve gotten to revive an old family tradition. Turns out people in Rhode Island aren’t as hyped up about crabs as they are lobster, oysters, and clams, so the populations there are doing well and the water is a bit cooler. Last year and this year, we got to eat whole crabs together, on newspaper, with the requisite dipping accouterments---butter and vinegar.
Now, while my parents both share a love of crabs, the side sauces are where they diverge. My dad is a devotee of butter, exclusively (a “south jersey thing”). My mother is in the ardent vinegar camp (and Old Bay she’d add, please don’t forget that). Their children (including me), enjoy both, using a double dip method. Out of reverence though, my father defers to my mother’s authority on crabs when showing our partners or reminding us (since it has been so long) how to break open a claw with a decisive bop of the palm and elegant twist of the knife, always prefacing the lesson with “let me show you the Maryland way to do it.”
These little moments help me, a drifting sea creature, feel a sense of place and identity with the people I come from. I am not from Maryland and while I’m technically from New Jersey, I’ve spent little time there. And yet I have crabbed a bunch as a child and eaten my fill of crab cakes and Maryland crab soup at funerals, anniversaries, and family parties. Knowing how to find my way through a pile of whole crabs more or less (my dad still gives me feedback), helps me feel belonging with the Mid-Atlantic folk who in part, define me culturally.
And yet, even though Old Bay spiced steamed blue crabs are my favorite shellfish (and food, period), I’ll admit there are other ways to prepare and eat crabs. In fact, when my mother gifted me a pound of crabmeat this spring, and I was contemplating making crab cakes again, my sweetie helped unlock me from this deep groove and try----ta da----crab fried rice! I have to say, it was a remarkable revelation. So old bay, butter, and vinegar needn’t even be involved to savor this delicacy.
My dad shared a video with me this weekend about spaghetti sauce that really drove home the power of taste diversity, and took me off guard in its truth telling shrouded in food industry speak. Firstly, I recommend watching it. If you can’t bear to listen for twenty minutes, here’s what I gathered. In essence, Malcolm Gladwell describes the work of a colleague of my father’s, Howard Moskowitz. His main points: Love what you love. Don’t let the obsession with authenticity or idyllic conceptions of food, bog you down from your desires. Rigidity blocks happiness. It’s why a local restaurant has mussels four ways, because they are all great, and out there, each way has an enthusiastic audience. When I fret about my food being too niche or feel like I have to add more salt or sweet to garner mass appeal, I will remember Howard and his drive to democratize flavor.
My sisters and I are a testament to the spontaneous evolution that happens within food traditions. Our adoption of the butter + vinegar method embraces what each of our parents have taught us in fusion of local foodways. And while I will continue to maintain that Old Bay steamed crabs with a marriage of side sauces will elicit my own deepest happiness, the notion that there’s more than one way and more than one people, is what makes me most happy.
Land is life—or, at least, land is necessary for life.
Thus contests for land can be—indeed, often are—contests for life.
The world had to be disenchanted in order to be dominated.
--Silvia Federci, Caliban and the Witch
Common myths of Empire:
The world is dead and inanimate.
Food is a mere obligation of our fleshy machine bodies.
Plants and animals are here to serve us, and lack sentience.
Oh, and you don't belong.
I was picking leaves off amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus, sp) stems this morning, thinking about colonialism. There’s a connection, between this plant and indigenous genocide, that’s quite literal. And, while as a country, this summer has been a shockwave of reckoning with the hard facts of what it means to live on stolen land, in a state founded on stolen labor, within the twisted, persisting cycles of oppression in 2020, Amaranth’s story feels timely.
When Cortez landed on Turtle Island’s shores in 1519, and entered the Mexica (Aztec) capital of Tenochtitlan (now known as Mexico City), he quickly noticed the centrality of amaranth to Nahua culture, including the Mexihcah people ( and the broad base of other peoples surrounding the city who may self-identify as the Acolhuah, Chalcah, Xochimilcah, Texcocah, Tlacopancah, Tepanecah, and Tlateloclcah, often mis-referred to as Aztecs). Cortez and his soldiers exploited the Nahua’s reverence and reliance on the plant in his campaign of genocide.
A staple food source, it’s been written that over 80% of protein intake in the Nahua diet came from Amaranth seeds. Amaranth, in Nahuatl, their native language, is huaútli, “smallest giver of life,” as the seed played a role in fertility rites and religious rituals. The seeds are blended with honey and shaped into animals as a way to honor the earth and celebrate abundance, then eaten, not unlike the Christian Eucharist sacrament.
Cortez ordered the burning of amaranth fields and outlawed the cultivation of amaranth as a crop (punishable by chopping off the hands of the person who planted the seeds). Breaking connection with a staple, sacred food was the first step in a long legacy of indigenous oppression, both a material and spiritual war.
Centuries later, NAFTA and other neo-colonial economic policies have deepened the plague of modern malnutrition/starvation in Mexico.
Communities in Mexico are reconnecting with their old friend Amaranth as a beacon of hope for present day struggles of poverty and malnutrition, the reality after centuries of oppressive colonial reign and abuse. PuenteMexico.com based in Oaxaca, is an organization dedicated to spreading the gospel of Amaranth as a plentiful, easy to cultivate, nutritionally powerful food crop.
Highly adaptable, Amaranth can survive in extreme drought conditions with a special branched secondary root system making her a reliable crop choice considering the uncertainty of current climate chaos. Long associated with fertility, each flower can contain upwards of 200,000 seeds (whoa baby!). The seeds are rich in protein, fiber, calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, and vitamin C. Their leaves contain 4 x as much calcium as Swiss chard and 4x the vitamin C as spinach. Nutrient dense and productive, embracing this plant can help heal broken bonds with real food.
Amaranth grows voluntarily in the mound of manure by my garden. I dry amaranth greens and make a powder to use in eggs, soups, and rice dishes supplementing my winter with summer magic. I also infuse amaranth greens and stalks in vinegar for a mineral rich tonic, and blend up her leaves in verdurette. I have also added fresh lamb’s quarters and amaranth greens and stems to sauerkraut recipes and really enjoyed the results.
Celebrate the fact that you can connect with Amaranth if you have that privilege, and give this lovely plant a try. Let her strength sing from your insides and be a gateway plant to learn about decolonization---the most material kind. May Amaranth inspire land reparation thoughts, ones that drive activation.
Simple ways to shake up empire’s grip:
Connect with non-human species.
Open yourself to enchantment.
Let the vitality of all creatures enliven you;
let your devotion to them drive your life.
Use all your inherited superpower strength from these plants in service of the holy war against white supremacy and neo-colonization.
Never forget magic is a threat to power.
(pictured left to right: purslane, lamb's quarters, milkweed buds, daylily, wood sorrel, bee balm petals)
We're in full swing summer now, the deep greens and radiant pinks say it all.
I missed writing these weekly emails and look forward to getting back into the rhythm of cooking and musing on nature's delights with you. This week's a slow re-entry as I'm at the trimester's end and that means it's term paper and exam season.
As such, the menu is mostly familiar favorites, but two new treats---purslane relish and a wild medley with "zoodles"!
Purslane is actual "fat of the land."
Don't wait another year to discover what she has to offer.
Below is a story I wrote about beloved purslane back in 2016. I took a break from making purslane relish for a couple years, but my dear friend Forest, who I mention in the story, keeps filing requests, so it's back!
PHOTO BY DAVID VOGEL PHOTOGRAPHY
Rediscovering Our Wild SideOriginally printed in Edible Pioneer Valley
June 08, 2016
Nestled near these cultivated patches of earth we call farms and gardens, often amongst the familiar vegetable celebrities such as tomatoes, broccoli, and lettuce, are the others—the uninvited lot of plants that don’t solicit patronage with shiny photos on seed packets. Party crashers, they arrive early in our gardens and never leave, they bully our seedlings, and feed on our precious compost.
Perhaps you are familiar with weeds? Do you have dark fantasies of ripping them out and suffocating them slowly in a black plastic garbage bags to be forever buried in an anaerobic heap of trash? Do you act out those fantasies?
Conceivably, there is another story to tell about these plants, much less frightening than the nightmare of freeloading garden gangsters. Could it be that these “weeds” have something else to offer beyond headaches? What if many of these plants were long lost friends we’d forgotten about, an epidemic of mass cultural amnesia?
Many of these “volunteers,” so to speak, are among the most nutritious plants in the world. Not only do they come in peace, but they are true delicacies and generous in their offerings—patron saints of nutrition. They are the garden coming to you, at no cost of cash or labor.
Purslane, one of my favorite free-ranging garden guests, is surely superfood royalty, beloved by humans around the world for thousands of years. I look forward to this creeping succulent plant with anticipation every summer. When she arrives, I prepare her daily in as many ways I can manage. Bringing brightness and crunch when raw, she complements any salad, be it garden, potato, grain, or chicken. I make an extra effort to store purslane treasures in sealed jars or bubbling crocks for my winter self. Using wild foods in preserves is a way to double down for maximized nutrition during the chilly season.
Cooling, calming, and nutritious, purslane’s juicy stems and leaves soothe my parched summer body, quench my thirst, and nourish my brain with healthy fats. Wild plants, on average, boast significantly higher levels of omega-3s than domesticated vegetables. Purslane’s essential fatty acid content is superlative; in fact, her holdings are the highest of any plant in the world. Americans currently eat a tenth of the amount of omega-3 fatty acids required for normal functioning. This makes her anti-inflammatory, focus-enhancing, mood-boosting nutrition a helpful friend for the vast majority of us. Her high levels of vitamin C support our skin and immune integrity. Her abundance of magnesium and calcium help balance our nervous system and feed our bones.
You get all that and more in your daily multi-vitamin you say? Science shows we cannot cherry-pick compounds from food that we believe are healthy for us, synthesize them in a lab, then expect those “vitamins” to work the same way in isolation. A recent systematic review of scientific papers assessing the long-term efficacy and health benefits of antioxidant supplements of vitamins A, C, E, and selenium concluded, “We found no evidence to support antioxidant supplements for primary or secondary prevention [of diseases of any kind].” Our bodies have evolved to receive and metabolize nutrients in complete packages. Across edible plant varieties, there are thousands of phytonutrients that support human health beyond the commercially available alphabet soup of vitamins and minerals. Elegantly, these same phytochemicals that buffer plants against pests and diseases can protect people from premature aging, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
We are coming back around to embracing complexity as a cornerstone of health. We are discovering what our ancestors knew through experience: Our bodies feel best when we are eating a diversity of plant foods, in their whole form, especially wild varietals. This makes sense when we consider that that’s how humans have been eating for much of their history. To function well, our cells expect the bath of micronutrients and protective array of antioxidants found in high concentrations in wild plant foods.
Worldwide, we are seeing biodiversity bulldozed by the promised security of sameness. Globalization and neoliberal trade policies replace “self-supply economies” with “profit-oriented foreign trade.” High-calorie, nutrient-poor foods move in, while the traditional cultural knowledge of wild plant foods is being lost. When diets are simplified, we lose more than nutrient density. We lose connection and intimate knowledge of the land base that feeds us.
I have a friend who just turned 70. Last summer, she met purslane for the first time. I’m fairly certain she won’t go another summer without eating this crunchy, sour plant in a few salads and slathering some homemade purslane-relish-enhanced Russian dressing on her sandwiches. Last year, we made this relish together. (I enjoy it classically, on a nice grass-fed burger. My mother discovered that it makes a nice topping on baked fish.) When we reaccept wild food as an elemental piece of being connected, happy, healthy creatures rather than a last-ditch survival trick, there is a feeling of openness to, and appreciation for, how the earth takes care of us. Introducing some of these forgotten feral darlings to our plates helps us soften to wonder and awaken with curiosity. What other “monsters” lurk out there that are really just sweethearts waiting to befriend us?
Carly lives and eats from a hilltop in Cummington, Massachsuetts and part time in Schenectady, NY.