On the Paradox of Dandelion Greens
For me, the meaning of the old adage “you are what you eat” is two-fold. Literally, it means that the food you eat is incorporated into your body and becomes your flesh and bones. More figuratively though, I think this phrase can be understood to mean that what you eat says a lot about you. For example, each meal you have on any given day may offer some information about your upbringing, which has greatly influenced the decision-making matrix of what you choose to eat. Perhaps you have a tolerance or affinity for the upper limits of the Scoville scale. Raw fish may or may not appeal to you. You may or may not know what a truffle is or where it comes from. Furthermore, we all have a favorite dish or two that tastes like home, one that connects us to our families or even specific memories, that helps us to understand ourselves and our place in the world. So much history and heritage is passed down generation to generation through food. It is for this reason as well that, in more ways than one, we are what we eat.
When discussing food and food preferences in particular, it doesn’t take long for the various aspects of our identity and experiences, including cultural background, geography, race, gender, class, age etc. to come into the picture. Needless to say, our food choices cannot be removed from our identities and our past. In this way, food has the incredible ability to connect us across differences, to provide common ground, or to reinforce those differences. For these reasons, the topic of food easily lends itself as a platform for discussing and analyzing the dynamics of social structures. There are many nuances and intersections that factor into our food choices, and today I want to explore the influence of social class and access on what we choose to eat.
Now, I know it may be a bit risky to jump right into some of the socio-political implications of food. However, it’s nearly impossible to talk about food nowadays without issues of class (and race, of course) coming to mind. Gastronomy and fine dining, celebrity chefs, foodie culture and “foodism” (in this context defined as the notion that our food choices reflect our morality and that if we don’t buy all organic all the time we are heathens bent on dooming the planet and posterity to a fiery death), and rampant food snobbery in general cannot be removed from the social status of those that the the food industry caters to and consists of. Investing so much time, money, and thought into food is a question of privilege and access to products, resources, connections, and know-how.
But food is not elitist. It is not reserved for the ruling class. People like Wolfgang Puck are not the only people who eat. Despite this, it’s easy to see that those with privileged access are typically the ones deciding food trends that shape the food system and trickle down eventually to the rest of us. But the story of food doesn’t start when an ingredient or product suddenly bursts onto the foodie scene and becomes relevant or recognized in mass media. What’s more important, and frankly more interesting, is everything that comes before.
Thus, to hereby consummate this blog and launch it into whatever uncertainty and excitement the future has in store, this first post will be a discussion of some of the nuances of the relationship between class and the food on our dinner plate and/or Instagram feed. As you may have guessed, it will prominently feature a little yellow weed that we all know and love (unless we have allergies or work in landscaping).
So why Dandelion Greens anyway? How and where do dandelions belong in any conversation about food?
The name Dandelion Greens is not just a play on my name, which is Danielle (though I was quite proud of that if we’re being honest). Growing up, I remember my mother and grandmother reminiscing about a time when neighbors and people from nearby towns would come to their pastures to harvest dandelion greens. My mother and her five siblings grew up with very little money on a dairy farm in one of the poorest counties in rural Maine. The people who came were, according to my mother’s memory, typically very poor and often French-Canadian, which was a significant social signifier at that time. French-Canadians were stereotyped as uneducated and rugged laborers who came to work in the mill towns along rivers of New England. Dandelions were an important, and perhaps in some cases the only, source of nutritious greens during the early summer months for those who came to pick them in the pastures of the family’s 80-acre farm.
Flash forward half a century or so and I’m working at my first job out of college (shoutout to Johnny’s!), selling seeds to farmers across the Northeast and California. To my disbelief, dandelion was an important catalog item, rounding out the Chicory section and adding another bitter green option for the adventurous palate. I sold the dandelion seeds, which had been hybridized and selected to outperform other varieties on the market, to organic farmers across the country who would then sell the greens for top dollar to Whole Foods and chefs at upscale restaurants. From the safety of my cubicle, I watched this pesky little weed that low-income families once used out of necessity transform into a highly sought-after niche market item featured in farm-to-table menus.
Needless to say, this did not align with my understanding of dandelions and their uses (or lack thereof… in my mind, it was still just a weed). At first, the image of farmers planting dandelions in perfectly manicured beds while surrounded by rolling fields of blooming dandelions was comical and nonsensical. All that really meant, though, was that there were consumers demanding dandelion greens from these organic farms and farmers were responding to meet that demand. I began to wonder: Who the hell are these people? Who decided that something as unsexy as a literal weed could be a trendy new salad addition?
They certainly weren’t families like my mother’s, who wouldn’t have been able to swing $6 a bunch at the farmer’s market if they wanted to. Even if my grandmother had used them in her cooking (as it were, she never did because she didn’t like the taste), I doubt she would have received praises of creativity and ingenuity for a dish using such a peculiar ingredient. It’s more likely that she, and all the others who used dandelion greens in their cooking at that time, would have been understood to be lower-class, even “backwards” (a word I loathe). As a child, my mother may have been too embarrassed to invite their friends over for dandelion greens stew.
Today, in comparison, the use of dandelion greens by chefs and home cooks alike is more likely to imply wealth, since they’re produced on a relatively small scale and are therefore more expensive than mass-produced leafy green alternatives. It may also signify knowledge, as it takes some skill and/or practice to know how to either hide or highlight the bitter taste. To some, dandelion greens may be closely associated with the movement to connect food back to the Earth, to eat food that comes directly from nature or that is organically and justly produced. They’re likely to be marketed as a novel and interesting addition to salad or stew. Regardless of how or why it’s used, dandelion greens in today’s mainstream food landscape have become a marker of class privilege and access, while years ago they would have been sign of poverty.
The trajectory of dandelion greens from humble and undesirable necessity to glamorized luxury is actually quite common when it comes to food. As food trends cycle, it’s not unusual to see the least attractive items come into vogue and attain an elevated or elite status, rebranded with a seal of approval from the professional chefs and writers of the day that the rest of us eaters take our food cues from. There are countless examples of this throughout history, one of my favorites being the tomato.
Though the tomato was an important ingredient used in Mexican and Central American cooking prior to Spanish invasion, when it arrived in Europe in the 16th century it was seen as exotic novelty at best and dangerous indigenous (read: “savage” or “uncivilized”) food at worst. All nightshades were believed to be poisonous at the time, so the tomato was mostly used ornamentally until roughly 200 years later. As the story goes, it did not become a beloved national treasure in Italy until 1889 when Queen Margarita called on the best-known pizza maker in Naples to make her a new dish. He presented her with three variations of pizza: One with marinara and garlic, one with anchovies, and one with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil leaves. She loved the third dish, especially because the ingredients were red, white and green (the colors of Italy). Once approved by the Queen, the pizza took off and became a dish that symbolically unified and represented the country (Source: Precious Cargo by David DeWitt).
Of course, the journey of dandelion greens in recent history is not nearly as romantic as this. There was no Queen to royally decree that an ingredient which had once repulsed people should now be considered a delicacy. The dandelion has not become a ubiquitous staple in worldwide cuisines. Yet, in many ways, the two foods represent a phenomenon in culinary culture that has important implications for how the masses make decisions in terms of the food they choose to eat. These stories show that the people who hold the reigns that steer the food economy and decide the fate of these items are often not the same as those who used and enjoyed them originally. In other words, it often takes some elite authority, be it Saveur Magazine or a Queen, to approve of a food before it becomes accepted by the masses. It has to be removed from its previous, less appetizing associations.
In order for this to be possible, a conveniently selective memory of the history of these foods is sometimes necessary. I doubt the Queen of Italy would have been able to push this new dish as a representation of Italy if she were highlighting the fact that it originated with indigenous people in the Americas. It needed to be sold as uniquely Italian. Likewise, dandelion greens today may be marketed as a novelty that is unique in flavor or beneficial to our health, but it’s unlikely that those who are spending so much money on these greens know that there have been people in past generations (and perhaps even to this day) who depended heavily on dandelion greens because they were a free and nutritious food source.
For these reasons, dandelion greens perfectly represent the motivation behind this blog. This little weed captures a common paradox in the culinary world: that food has different meanings in different contexts, depends on who is making or eating it. These are the types of stories I hope to tell here. I want to pull the curtain back and take a look at what’s behind all the bells and whistles of the food world. Food doesn’t just appear on our plates, or at the grocery store, or even at the farm where it was grown. Every ingredient in every bite we eat has a story, and the past provides a wealth of information about what we eat and why.
This effort will undoubtedly lead to discussions of identity, power dynamics, and systems of control. It will undoubtedly be political because food is inherently political (a phrase I didn’t coin but often think about). However, I hope it will also be thought-provoking and entertaining. If there’s something that particularly resonates with you, I hope you’ll share it in a comment. If everything I just said infuriates you and you can’t believe a dandelion can be used as a launchpad to discuss ideas like the impact of socio-economic status on the food system, please also feel free to say so.
Finally, I’d love to know: What experience do you have with dandelion greens? Have you ever eaten them yourself? If so, did you buy them from the grocery store or dig them up out of your backyard? What other foods can you think of that have made this transition from lower-class staple to upper-class novelty?
Thanks so much for reading, until next time!
Categories: Food Musings