Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Pizza and the two Gs

Gathering and grilling

June 2, 2009

Here’s a purely anecdotal observation, but I believe it has merit: People blog less in the spring.

OK, I blog less in the spring. When I have purged my email (last time since January); when the piles of whatnot have been cleared from what reveal themselves to be a desk, three chairs, and a nifty vintage rolling cart (last visible in January); when I feel unfettered and light-footed, I go outside and look at stuff, leaving my laptop in the gloom of a newly tidy office.

“What survived winter?” I ask myself, stalking the garden apprehensively. This is a serious question. For the first time in a decade of wimpy winters, we had a solid 30-below nighttime low. (And none of that wind-chill-factor baloney — this was a ground temperature.) Suddenly, our global-warming-influenced Zone 4 botanical bets seemed lunatic.

The good news: The rhubarb and the blueberry plants, the plum tree, and two of the cherry trees (one a Bali, a Canadian breed, naturally) look hale. The replacement quince (last year’s died in midsummer) has giant floppy pink flowers spiraling down its trunk.

The bad news: The White Gold cherry, though it put on leaves in April, is now clearly dead, the defunct leaves like little gray-green wings withered against the trunk. The peach is gone. The chestnuts are iffy. The serviceberries lack leafy vibrancy.

I eye the grill. It needn’t maintain the vascular suppleness I ask of the trees and shrubs, except for the hose that attaches the liquid propane tank to the firebox — that must remain clear and flexible. I twist the dial and work the ignition. A few quick plastic snaps and then the whoosh of a small gas cloud catching fire. My salivary glands tingle.

Look out, folks. The gathering and grilling seasons in Wisconsin have begun.

The wild leek tastes great on grilled pizza.

Those of you in Zones 5 and above may already be jaded with your woodland and garden treasures. But here in Menomonie, lilacs don’t bloom until early May, and we dare not set out the tomato starts until after Memorial Day. The peonies, for Pete’s sake, are still tightly bound, ant-ridden knots.

As trade-offs go, I don’t consider myself too deeply disadvantaged. In June, I will have light until almost 10 o’clock. And I like wearing sweaters in August.

Knowing that nothing but rhubarb and asparagus will come out of the garden until July, we turn to the woods, where goodies have been pushing through the leaf duff for two solid weeks.

With help from Forager’s Harvest, by Sam Thayer, Devin and I located the makings of pizza and salad fairly easily last weekend.

Pizza on the grill

Our first grill venture this year was pizza with wild leeks, wood nettles, tomatoes, and Beer Kaese. Wild leeks are ephemera that seem fond of shallow valleys near basswood trees (which is good, because new basswood leaves are tasty in salads, kind of like grassy green beans). Devin picked more than a pound of the delicate white, pink, and green leeks, some of which I ground with walnuts, olive oil, and salt to make a quickie pesto, reserving the rest for pizza, since when grilled, their sweet qualities emerge.

I had avoided nettles for many years, since my only contact with them was next to a sign in the co-op produce aisle warning me to handle them with gloves. Though careful handling is necessary, young nettles can be picked bare-handed and after a brief boiling, they’re as tame as kitty cats. I was a pretty easy convert.

The tomatoes and Beer Kaese are not to be found in the leaf litter, but they complement the leeks and nettles well. Later this summer, I’ll swap the nettles for pig’s ear. By then, I might even have caught a trout and not have to rely so heavily on my husband’s fishing skills. I have not yet put fish on a pizza, but I see no reason not to try.

When I was a graduate student in need of a desk one summer, I roamed the streets imagining every flat surface I encountered as a place to write. It became a game of “Spot the Desk.” I saw myself bent over an oak door, using the paneling as a guerrilla in-box. Likewise, with a few hours’ outdoor inspection, I begin making everything into “Spot the Dinner.”

Given my cautious nature, I do not expect this game to end up in the emergency room. I do, however, expect it to result in a few more woodland pizzas.

There are 2 comments on this item
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1. by kelly on Jun 3, 2009 at 8:58 PM PDT

Joan, you are making me miss Wisconsin!

2. by joanmenefee on Jun 18, 2009 at 12:52 PM PDT

What I call “pig’s ear,” Deborah Madison calls “lamb’s quarter.” So here is more advice about using this succulent colonizer of disturbed land:

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