Whenever I dunk a cracker into a creamy chunk of Brillat-Savarin (the cheese, not the long-decayed corpse of the cheese’s namesake, French author Anthelme Brillat-Savarin) I think of the phrase “you are what you eat.” Brillat-Savarin’s famous words distill in artful simplicity the complicated nature of what food studies scholars spend their lives trying to untangle: all the ways that food affects people socially, physiologically, philosophically, etc; how people use food to identify themselves, to define themselves, to draw lines between “us” and “them;” the roles and meanings of food in the everyday lives of you. Food becomes you (your body), and you (your you-ness) are a product of every meal you have or haven’t eaten.
If I were to wager a guess, I’d say probably every person on the planet has a story about food and identity. A meal that tastes like home. A recipe cherished for its connection to loved ones. An ingredient that’s rooted in generations of tradition. Or maybe it’s something entirely new. The story I like to tell myself about who I am and where I came from is about dandelion greens.
The name Dandelion Greens is not just a play on my name, which is Danielle (ha ha). My mother grew up on a dairy farm in one of the poorest counties in rural Maine, and despite having some land and a relatively steady income from the farm, her family was very poor. But they were better off than some. In early spring, my grandparents’ 80 acres or so would bloom like crazy with dandelions and my grandmother would let people onto the farm to harvest them to take home and eat. She claims she didn’t like the taste of the dandelions, but I also wonder if something about eating dandelions was socially significant. Perhaps she didn’t eat them or feed them to her family as a way of distinguishing herself from the poorest population in the area. They were not wealthy, but they are not destitute like those people.
Those people were, according to my mother’s memory, typically French-Canadian. French-Canadians at that time were stereotyped as uneducated and rugged laborers who came to work in the mill towns along rivers of New England and dry up all the liquor stores. My grandfather used to disparage them, even after my mother had been with my father (who was those people) for many years. They were the poorest of the poor. I don’t know if they came to my grandparents’ pastures to pick dandelion greens out of necessity or because they were a seasonal treat. I have to do some research on that. Regardless, the two polarized halves that would eventually form a whole me came together, many years ago, around this food that was scarcely considered food.
Dandelion greens remind me who I am, literally and historically and metaphorically. I am both what I eat and what I don’t eat. I am a pesky weed. I am survival. I am abundance. I am seasonal allergies.
This is why I’ve observed the trajectory of the dandelion green into the mainstream with casual interest. While working for a seed company in Maine, I found it curious that dandelion was an important catalog item, rounding out the Chicory section. I sold carefully bred, hybridized dandelion seeds to organic farmers across the country. I imagined them planting dandelions in perfectly manicured beds while surrounded by rolling fields of yellow blooms. These improved varieties of dandelion would then be sold for top dollar to Whole Foods and chefs at upscale restaurants in New York and the Bay Area. The dandelion, it seemed, rounded out their offerings of bitter greens, catering to a distinguished, civilized palate that could afford to eat weeds in a delicate and dignified way.
Who were those people, newly enamored by a plant that, in my experience, the poor had designated as fit for consumption only by the very poor? Who were those chefs whose use of the ingredient had been deemed visionary, original, avant-garde? What do dandelion greens say about them?
As it were, the story of foods shifting from necessity to luxury is not unique to dandelion greens. The changing meaning of food as it travels between continents, between social classes, races, genders, religions, is itself a constant. Who we are is what we eat but sometimes who we are is different simply from who they are, even if we eat them same food. Who we are and what we eat is relational, it’s historical, and it’s constantly in flux.
The first time I ate dandelion greens was in a salad at a restaurant; I did not dig them up myself, swatting away the first batch of mosquitos of the season. Dandelion greens, then, have climbed the class ladder all the way up and all the way back down.