Like Garlic Mustard? YOU Eat It

There’s an allelopath on the loose in my town, committing crimes in broad daylight, and I’ve been spending a good part of this quarantine handing out vigilante justice.

It’s edible, as many people have reminded me. They say steam it. They say chop it fine and use it to replace lemon and parsley. They say flatten it on cookie sheets and toast it then sauté it. They all say make a pesto out of it. We’re talking about people with a steady supply of it right outside their windows, and I don’t see any of them walking around with a colander picking its leaves.


Alliaria petiolata.

I’m talking about garlic mustard. Jack-by-the-hedge. Poor man’s mustard. Alliaria petiolata. “Alliaria” means it resembles an allium, but’s in the brassica family. As in “brass balls.” Its olfactory bait and switch is just one of many duplicitous things about this plant.

They say it was imported in the 1800s from Europe, where it’s been used for centuries, for food and as a diuretic – and where it has 69 kinds of herbivorous insects that eat it, that we don’t have here. Without these controls, it takes over. It’s considered one of the worst invasive plants in temperate forests across North America, and my little corner of New York state has it bad.

In the warm days of April, garlic mustard shoots and leaves are among the first to peep out through the forest floor. You see it and coo, “Spring!” like when the puffballs come in Amarcord. When the trees blossom, garlic mustard’s already shin-high. Some of the bigger ones are waist-high when it flowers in mid-May. It seems to prefer the shade but thrives in the wide open sun too – though I have noticed that in the sun it seems less monopolistic, more able to share the soil.

“Able to share”? It’s also allelopathic, meaning “suffering mutually.” More specifically, it produces chemicals that harm other plants, which is easy to imagine when you’re picking it. Its stem, when mature, is purplish on the bottom, the color of the rutabaga. When you pull it out by its main root, which I’ve done hundreds of times lately, you smell something like synthetic horseradish extract.


Biennials, the first year they look like this.

Is this the exact chemical that inhibits other plants? I don’t know. I do know that the New York State webpage devoted to garlic mustard says, “Herbivores such as deer and woodchucks only remove up to 2% of the leaf area in a stand of garlic mustard. This level of herbivory is ineffective in controlling reproduction or survival of garlic mustard.”

Aside from loving the word “herbivory” – Scrabble opponents, take note! – it’s worth remembering that deer and woodchucks eat everything. Plant nurseries around here offer deer resistant selections, and they munch them down like snow peas at a salad bar. If they don’t eat garlic mustard, that’s telling you something.

When I’ve spent all afternoon yanking horseradish extract pods out of the ground, the last thing I want to do is pull the heart-shaped leaves off the stem so I can say I have locally foraged chimichurri in my fridge – that I never actually eat. Because here’s the dirty secret of the locavore movement: some of this stuff tastes like weeds! And I would put garlic mustard in that category.

A few weeks ago, one unseasonably cool evening, I was bored and walked up the road. I was admiring a neighbor’s garden. I’d never met him, but he came outside with two cans of beer, which is not out of character for how people are behaving here lately. He and his wife are herbalists – I knew this already, because it’s a small town – and conversation came around to plants. I pointed to the garlic mustard next to his shed. “Do you eat that stuff?”


A roadside ditch in High Falls, NY, overrun.

He leaned forward, like the ramps might hear him. “Such a pain in the ass.”

I discovered this myself last  last spring – my first one here since leaving the city – and had some friends coming over, so I spent an afternoon picking and washing garlic mustard. I used it to make a saag, a versatile dish I’ve made many times, that works with any green: chard, mustard, kale, etc. I went heavy on the butter and put toasted cashews on top, and it tasted…edible.

“Artisinal isn’t always good,” as a food writer once told me. I would add, “Foraged isn’t always tasty.” And any time you’re told more than once that something is “good in pesto,” that’s like a root veg that’s “good in soup,” or something like a wine region “known for its rosé.” It’s something that’s edible when its flavor is covered, or it’s known for more misses than hits in its hit-and-miss vintages.

The First Agricultural revolution happened 10,000 years ago. If I promise not to make an extra trip to buy it, and to compost the stems afterward, will you forgive me for just eating spinach?


If the deer don’t eat it….

Mysteries of Mithras: Klimov, Macfarlane, and You Know Who

In the first scene of Elem Klimov’s Come and See, two boys are digging in a sandbank pulling out Nazi helmets and belt buckles. It’s not clear if they’re in an old campsite or a mass grave. The only places I’ve ever seen like it, topographically, are the banks of Midwestern rivers like The Platte and The Wisconsin.

It’s Belarus in 1943, and the younger boy is throwing voices, taunting Flyora for not having a gun. A truck full of live Nazis drives past, and the boys know exactly what to do: they dive out of sight. The truck is gone and Flyora, who looks 14 or maybe 40, now has his hands deep in the sand, rocking to pry something loose underneath. He humps the earth for a minute then stands up proudly with a German-made rifle he just pulled from the ground.



Weirdly resonant, this scene made perfect sense to me, since I’d just read Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey. (Everybody else was reading The Overstory, and I was reading Underland, go figure.) It’s one of those books that gets called “narrative non-fiction,” but I don’t think it would be an insult to just call it a long-ass magazine article. A very well-read nature writer gives himself an ambitiously broad mandate for underground places to visit and tells us what he sees.

So there are chapters about cave exploration, giant mines under the North Sea, a days-long punk tour under Paris, nuclear storage facilities, and rivers under glaciers. Here’s a typical anecdote delivered matter-of-factly:

“Another day, near the highest point of the Mendip plateau, Sean and I walk what is known as ‘gruffy ground.’ ‘Gruffy’ means ‘rough,’ ‘rugged,’ and gruffy ground is the relic landscape of lead-mining activities dating back more than 2,000 years. Small-scale Roman mining left behind hundreds of small heaps of tailings; in the eighteenth century these were heated to melt out any residual lead ore. This double working of the landscape has left the ground humped with small hills of toxic slag…shunned by grazing animals which sense its contamination.”

You had me at “gruffy”!

Reviews of Underland tend to focus on its scientific pessimism about the anthropocene epoch, but the anthropology in it turned me on the most. That early humans buried their dead long before they had permanent homes for the living seems to me something we need to contemplate if we’re going to kick the plastic and petroleum habits.

No part of Underland hit me as personally as the short section on Mithraism, about the god Mithras. A Mediterranean interpretation of a pre-Zoroastrian Iranian god, you could call it a perversion of the Persian, but the cult of Mithras does not even get a mention in the pocket bible on mythology I grew up with, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Mithras had a following all over the Roman empire, but especially, they say, in Western Europe.

The Mysteries of Mithras was a rival spiritual insurgency in the centuries before Constantine made another fringe cult the official religion of the empire. Mithras was typically shown killing a bull, and membership in his mysteries was limited to men. (The Christians converted women, and were sometimes accused of subverting the patriarchal family.) His followers included many soldiers, who would stop at a mithraeum – which was always underground, or at least decorated to look like a cave – on their way to or from battle. That men fearing for their lives, or preparing to do violent things to others, would stop to worship a bull-killer underground resonates somewhere deep in the male psyche.

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Macfarlane looks fearlessly at questions like “What radioactive isotopes will outlast the human species?” but Mithras seems to give him the heebie-jeebies, and he quickly pivots to a more hopeful future: “Thinking of the diver-explorers of the Timavo as modern Mithraists…I am reminded of the historically gendered nature of the underland.” He touches on Orpheus and Eurydice, et cetera, then anecdotes about “women rewriting these ancient archetypes with courage and expertise”: female cavers in Uzbekistan and a microbiologist at Wind Cave in South Dakota.

That’s great, but it seems like a cave left unexplored. Why men? What do they see underground? Is it birth envy re-expressing itself long into the era of the hunter-agricultural division of labor? The women grow things every day, and the men might kill a large mammal only once in a while, so they have to get their earthy creation groove on?

Three years ago, I weakly tried expressing the profoundness of Black Sabbath’s last show at Madison Square Garden by saying it felt like a chthonic rite. What I was hinting at was more Mithraic: men going underground.

This week we learned that, partly for obvious reasons, we’ve passed a milestone: renewable energy has surpassed coal in the U.S., and that’s good news. What’s more, what little hope there was for a reprieve for the coal-burning power plants scheduled to be shut down in the next few years is also gone, and that’s great news.

Realistically though, the bond between man and pickaxe, and the psychic satisfaction of the journey underground, have not gone away. By itself, “solar panel installation” will never hit the bass notes, or monosyllables, of “coal mine.” When Trump said in 2016 that he was going to bring coal jobs back, a few gullible people might have believed him, but many more stood up and cheered because it was a profession of faith. That the men should be in the mines carries the weight of “God is in His heaven.”

The Soviet Cinema Power Couple

If you’re feeling like four and a half hours of emotional horror, watch a Soviet double feature about the worst days of World War Two. I did just that, to “celebrate” the 75th anniversary of V-E Day.

Only after I’d gotten through the first half, The Ascent by Larissa Shepitko, did I learn that the two films I’d chosen were made by respective halves of a power couple of Soviet cinema: Shepitko and her husband Elem Klimov. You would think, from the black and white look of The Ascent, that you’re dealing with a historic film from the 1950s or early 60s, but it was made in 1977.

You could say that American filmmakers were already attempting the great Vietnam film, and those poor Russians were still stuck in World War Two, but then you’d have to acknowledge that The Ascent and Come and See (1985) were just plain better all-around films than any American war film.


THE ASCENT is full of details reminding you that these are familiar people doing and enduring horrific things.

War, in my childish imagination, meant lining up tens of thousands of soldiers along a line of scrimmage between territories, and trying to move that line. The first army to move it to the other’s capital won. Add a dose of moral certainty and you’ve got Lincoln and Grant surrounding Richmond, or Eisenhower crossing France. You can use a color pencil set to trace the slow triumph of good over bad.

The Ascent, written by Shepitko and Yuri Klepikov, based on Vasiliy Bykov’s novel, is set in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, where partisan guerrillas are hiding in the woods trying not to starve in winter. You shiver with them and watch in real time as handfuls of crunchy wheat bulgur get passed around, until two volunteers, Rybek and Sotnikov, head off to find some food for the group, and it doesn’t go well.

There is Rybek’s girlfriend’s parents’ farm, where he thinks he can find food – and it’s leveled. There’s the “head man,” a collaborator whose life they spare after stealing one of his sheep – and who turns out much more complex and sympathetic than they expected. And there’s Demchikha, the presumed widow trying to raise three kids, whose tiny house the guys happen to be hiding in, without asking, when the Nazis arrive.


Shepitko died in a car accident location-scouting the film after THE ASCENT. She had he coolest haircut ever.

All along the way there is the one partisan Sotnikov, an ideologue of pure socialist ideals, whose conscience steers them right at key moments – and whose chest cold, and then bullet wound to the leg, make him a literal drag on the mission. Rybek is the more experienced partisan fighter, and kind of a charming scoundrel, but with an impatient, angry edge to him.

Sotnikov is my kind of guy. I’m somebody you’d want around to keep the workers at the munitions plant in a productive mood when news comes that our rations are going to be cut, but I’m not the first person you’d choose to be with in a foxhole. You need both of us to win a world war, but I’ve lived long enough to know that the Rybeks of the world, with their get-shit-done survival ethic, find people like me frustratingly dreamy-headed.

Well, this Rybek in The Ascent, after all he’s done to keep Sotnikov alive, can’t persuade him even a bit that some moral prestidigitation with their interrogators is called for, to save them from being hung. It’s a genius dramatic conceit, and a setup for a gruesomely poetic finale.



That the story is something we experience from Rybek’s perspective, and without a full conversion to Sotnikov’s martyrdom, makes it very politically mature. “What do I do now that I have compromised myself?” is not something you’d expect from a major World War Two film of a country known for censorship and so invested in its own heroism.

Come and See, written by Klimov and Ales Adamovich, is set in Belarus around the same time. It was getting some attention before the quarantine, since it just got a 35-year anniversary restoration and was screening around the country.

Compared to The Ascent, Klimov uses a much more innocent protagonist to take you on a more hair-raising journey. It’s also about partisans – and includes another long sequence about a livestock appropriation gone horribly wrong – but this time the hero is a 15-year-old boy named Flyora. One of the endearing things about Shepitko’s Rybek is how he recounts his one sexual liaison with his girlfriend before the war, delivered in a way that makes him seem young and sweet, not just a combatant in a dirty war.


Flyora in custody.

Well, Flyora still has one foot in boyhood when he enlists, and his mother responds by slapping the crap out of him. He gets passed over for his unit’s first attack – forced to trade his relatively new boots with an older fighter. He’s dejected till he teams up with Glasha, a beautiful girl of about 16 who endures guerrillas staring at her, but opens up to Flyora.

When they’re not dodging bullets from passing Nazi paratroopers, they’re unchaperoned in the forest and understandably getting frisky. It’s like Moonrise Kingdom, but with live ammunition. It feels like cheapening the dead of the Eastern front, to say that Come and See is a story about teenage rites of passage, but it’s about something universal besides the war.

Short descriptions of Come and See often praise its surrealism, but those seem like accents to me on an otherwise focused and purposeful narrative. It has scenes that evoke Amarcord and Romeo and Juliet, and it rewards repeated viewing – I’ve now seen it twice since Saturday!

Only on second viewing did it sink in how much time was spent staging the group photo of the partisan brigade, and how that sets up a momentous photo near the end. When the scene of Glasha dancing in a wet dress in a sun shower for Flyora’s pleasure lingers on and on, it’s inviting the male viewer to enjoy looking at her – a setup to make you feel horrifically dirty at the end when you see her after the Nazis have had their way with her.

Come and See is more spectacular than The Ascent, and in color, and since it takes place near “the front” and not miles behind enemy lines, the world of us-versus-them is more about soldiers of The Reich and less about the shades of collaboration. It is also about an immature protagonist – about sex and politics. A 15-year-old who just wants to stay alive gets a free pass on the bigger questions, so you can watch things unfold as he experiences them, without ever really dwelling on the horrifying choices people around him are making…

…until the second-to-last scene, that is, when the band of partisans surrounds a dozen or so captured Nazis and gives them an impromptu hearing. I’m sure the denouement with its historical footage of Hitler has been written about many times – and I can’t wait till its safe to browse in physical bookstores again – but let’s just say this was not an out-of-place choice of two films to watch on Mother’s Day weekend either.


Happy Mothers Day, by the way.

If you’re wondering where I’m seeing all these, the Criterion Channel is one thing getting me through this coronavirus spring – the best eleven bucks I spend every month. You not only get to see an important (and often enough entertaining) film every day, Criterion’s extra features, its mini-lectures by critics and historians, are consistently on point and just the right length.

American Brands: In Praise of Average

This cup of Maxwell House in front of me is a perfectly balanced pre-breakfast drink all by itself. Funny, because yesterday I noticed its pecan notes pair well an afternoon piece of leftover chocolate birthday cake. Good to the last drop!

I predicted that  it would be alright to have around when I bought my first can of it in many years, back on March 12th. I even gave it that highest of consumer ratings, “It won’t go to waste,” but didn’t yet realize I’d be buying more and more of it – even after the unemployment benefits finally started.

It’s easy to remember Thursday, March 12th, 2020, because I manage a restaurant – a very good one – and Thursday falls on my weekend. I could already see the great shutdown coming, but we had plans: a mom, a dad, and a ten-year-old daughter, whom they pulled from school to come see us, so we weren’t going to cancel on them

I had an idea for a fun picture to take, to re-stage a family photo of my own mother from her childhood, with a round smile, surrounded by food. We always figured it was something her grandparents intended to send back to post-war Poland: Look how much plenty we enjoy.


Good to the last drop.

The shelves at my local supermarket that morning were more picked over than usual, and I felt the tension in the air starting to course through me. I reached for a box of Ronzoni spaghetti and grabbed three of them just in case.

I typically stroll through the coffee aisle without stopping: to my bourgeois but left-of-center taste, coffee is something you bought from a local roaster, or possibly from a food co-op with uplifting images of unionized-looking coffee bean pickers. But this photo needed some kind of coffee, and a plain brown bag wouldn’t do.

After some texting my mother told me my memory was off. There was no table full of food. That photo was merely one of her with a large loaf of bread in her hands. That’s the nature of memory – we might be remembering the point of the memory, then reimagining the truth to suit it – but I digress, and I’d already bought the Maxwell House.

Unpacking the groceries, I remembered what Andy Warhol, another Polish immigrant, said about Coca Cola: “What’s great about this country is that … the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too …. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.”

“Is that what’s great about this country?” and “Are Cokes really good?” are just two reasonable questions, but I get his point in the abstract. Any vision of the American cornucopia without classic brands would not be accurate, and one of their pleasures is in breaking bread with the rest of the country.

Convenience and cost are two more good things about national brands, and another pleasure is of course nostalgia: Nabsico Shredded Wheat tastes like childhood to me. I remember seeing, in a European History 101 textbook, a woodcut print of medieval peasants harvesting leeks, and hardly knowing what a leek was. You probably couldn’t find leeks in my suburban New Jersey town in the 1980s, but I’ve since learned a few things to do with them, and one is to chop and sauté them and dump soup stock over them – and if I add some dried egg noodles, then it’s suddenly like I’ve been eating leeks since at least the 1400s.

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“New Look: Same Great Taste.”

The connection, I’m seeing now, is deeper than nostalgia. It’s basic comfort – and I don’t just mean the warm feeling of a spoonful of Campbell’s. It’s the sense that the sky is up and the earth is down. I was not surprised to read last month that in Poland a no-nonsense style of restaurant from the Communist era is thriving right now: that would be my childhood, and my earth and sky too, if my mother’s grandparents didn’t have so much get-up-and-go.

It also seemed like lucky timing for Land o’ Lakes to finally move on from its Native American mascot this month, of all months – with panache, I might add. You can make demands when you’re in demand, and brands and the comfort they bring are indispensable right now.

Lots has been said about how much cooking and baking people are doing while they’re home on quarantine, and my family of two (plus cats) was no exception, till the quarantine wore us out. I’ve complained over the years about how foodie culture has ruined that oft-abused and misunderstood concept of hospitality, and I’ve been guilty of that myself, fussing over parsley when I could be listening, really listening, to friends I rarely see.

Now that we are all talking about what things will be like after quarantine – prematurely, in my case, since I don’t see restaurants being nearly the same for a while – I sense that a lot of us will have had the gourmand demon exorcised from us. We’ll be ready to get together with friends, and we won’t much care about the garnishes.

So when you finally get to entertain friends again, let’s not kill the fatted calf every time. And let’s not be too eager to show off our quenelle skills. Reach for cream of mushroom! Love them with luminescent Green Giant peas. And if you must show off with a homemade dessert, bless them with a shoofly pie made from the the holy trinity of Grandma’s molasses, Domino’s brown sugar, and Hecker’s all-purpose flour. And of course brew a fresh pot of Maxwell House.