Anne Zimmerman lives in and writes from the Bay Area. She is working on a book about the food writer M.F.K. Fisher.
My boyfriend spent much of his childhood on a commune outside of Santa Cruz, California. It’s a personal fact that doesn’t come up all that often in our big-city life, complete with indoor plumbing, heat, and lots of modern amenities that we adore. But his childhood experiences make him an ingenious cook. He’s truly able to make something out of nothing, cooks sans recipes, and, as I sometimes joke, could survive for days in the wild on nothing but plants and bark.
On a recent weekend we vacationed in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. We drove over the Golden Gate Bridge on a beautiful Saturday morning and into a food and outdoor lover’s mecca. We’d brought plenty of wine with us, along with a few other items we might need: a hammock, rope, sleeping bag, pillows, blankets, a change of clothes, warm jackets, sunscreen, DVDs, a butchered organic chicken, and both lamb and Italian sausage. We also had a mortar and pestle, Spanish paprika, garlic, and cumin seeds, all packed to make a special secret marinade for the chicken.
Did I mention we were only going to be gone two days and that we were staying in a lovely and well-stocked vacation home with friends? No matter, we were prepared.
We arrived in Point Reyes in the early afternoon and after helping our hosts to plant spring flowers in their garden, we set out on a hike. Immediately, my boyfriend became the group naturalist. Before we’d hit the end of the gravel road that lead to the house, he’d pointed out a thatch of wild nettles that we could pick, steam, and make into a soup.
He spotted a bay tree and chose a handful of leaves to stick in my pocket. “There,” he said, “now you don’t have to buy them.”
He picked delicate sprigs of a bright green grass that tasted like sour apples and made our mouths pucker. He spotted the small heads of purple wild iris and made us all stop and notice their delicate shape and beauty.
Then he spotted the miner’s lettuce. “This is great stuff,” he said. “We could pick it and put it in the salad.” The rest of the group looked at each other suspiciously. We casually picked a sample leaf, put it in our mouths, and chewed. Slowly, we began to grin.
Miner’s lettuce has the texture of spinach, though it is much brighter and greener in color. It isn’t an aggressive or crunchy green, but it has a nice, mild, vegetal taste. It is a pretty plant; its leaves are just larger than a half-dollar and look almost like a heart. Some come with a tiny pistil growing out of the center of the leaf with an even tinier, almost invisible white flower. Miner’s lettuce grows in large patches, low to the ground, and is almost nondescript as it climbs and trails over the springtime forest floor.
Miner’s lettuce is most common along the northern California coast. It loves spring and early summer with its damp, cool climate, and congregates quickly in sunlit areas after heavy rains. It is named after the Gold Rush miners who ate it in hopes of preventing scurvy.
On our way back down the trail we picked a bagful of miner’s lettuce. Once home, we washed it carefully (it was a wild plant, after all) and added it to the other lettuces and vegetables we’d brought. Then we dressed it with an herby vinaigrette and ate it as the first course to our meal. The miner’s lettuce made for a lovely salad, reminiscent of the most beautiful restaurant salads of fresh and uncompromised greens.
It was a particularly tasty salad, too. We all remarked on that. Was it because we were all together, enjoying the fantastic end of a sunny Saturday, that it tasted so good? Or maybe it was the feeling of satisfaction that comes with being self-sufficient and ingenious? Who knows. But I may never think about a simple salad in the same way again.
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