Sun. June 7
My chore today was to pass the hat after the foraging walk Nance lead at Garfield Park. She leads these walks on a regular basis, introducing people to the edible plants that grow abundantly in public places. I did a walk with Nance once before, through Chicago’s medical district in May 2008, and it was eye-opening. Our group that day was really focused on linden trees, as they had just flowered (the flowers make lovely teas and are helpful for coughs), and juneberries, AKA serviceberries (“sarvisberries” if you’re southern or an old-timer) which were in full and delicious fruit.
The walk at Garfield Park, a beautiful park on Chicago’s far west side was less fruitful in terms of stuff to eat. The plan had been to assemble a big salad for the group, but most of what Nance showed us was not edible without washing, due to the dog pee factor, proximity to car pollution, or potential insecticide spraying. Not that there weren’t plenty of things to sample and learn about. My big discovery on this walk was that the broad and narrow-leafed plantain, one of the most common plants in large grassy areas, is soothing to burns, scrapes and cuts and pulls out infection. The seeds are psyllium – that’s right, psyllium husks, the laxative.
Other edible / medicinal plants that we encountered were:
Garlic mustard (apparently a terrible invasive, but edible)
Mulberries, which I know well from my time in the Czech Rep
Red clover flowers are a good blood cleanser.
Yellowdock is a very important medicinal plant. Its leaves can be eaten early in the spring. It grows a “toothy” cluster of bright yellow roots that are good for digestion and liver cleansing. The seeds are high in protein and can be crushed and cleaned for consumption.
Lady’s thumbprint is a good salad green
Creeping Charlie is a headache cure if crushed and inhaled. It also can be used as a bittering agent for beer, or as a base for pesto, but it is too delicate to cook well.
Willow is another headache cure; you can chew on a young twig or let the twig dry, grind it into a powder and capsule it. If the leaves are steeped in water for a few days, the water will serve as a rooting hormone for other plant cuttings.
Motherwort – the original ‘Mother’s Little Helper,’ Motherwort soothes distress and anxiety related to menopause, menstruation and childbirth. It also promotes blood flow.
I should put a disclaimer here that none of the above is intended to serve as any sort of official medicinal or plant identification advice, because I’m definitely not an expert on either.
Many of these plants only have a limited window when they are edible (or they may be bitter or tough once they get past their prime).
Log of my chores & activities at the Urban Homestead for Friday, June 5
In the morning, I go with Nance to her gig at a 2000-bed homeless shelter that looks like a high-security high school. The shelter, which shall remain nameless, is a bible-thumpin’ mission, no doubt about it, but they feed their residents 3 meals a day and give them clothes and healthcare. The residents work on jobs in the mission, and I meet 4 of them that are in Nance’s vermiculture / greenhouse program.
So I spent my morning learning how to harvest worms – and worm poo – from these formerly homeless guys (and one woman), who are totally tough and charming and sweet and funny. They have 30 worm bins (roughly 4’ x 2’ x 2’) that they tend regularly (the worms eat the scraps from the kitchen), a tropical plant greenhouse, a roof garden with tomatoes, squash and cukes, and another long skinny food garden that runs along the outside perimeter of the greenhouse. The guys tell me a bit about how they like the program – it’s a yearlong commitment – and they are basically OK with it. Some pastors are cool (one resident quotes pastor X, one of the good ones that has a sense of humor: “oatmeal is better than NO meal!”) and others are hypocrites. Robert, a tall skinny young kid (23) says he likes working in the stockroom best, Joe prefers transportation duty. But they all seem to get into the worms…these people have had rough lives – addiction, abuse, prison – and it must be at least sort of nice, even on a subconscious level, to be working with something that’s a living system and constantly nurturing that, making it grow and change, giving back. At some point, Joe, a short, stocky middle aged recovering alcoholic who looks like he used to be in the military, talks about turning over a pile of dirt in Bin #1 to find a whole bunch of baby worms in it: “I don’t know why, it just made me so happy.”
At the end of my morning at the mission, I clip a whole bag of basil tops to make pesto. It was lovely riding the bus back with a whole bag of basil – the aroma permeated the whole bus (the other folks on the bus did not let on whether or not they liked that smell). Back at the Homestead, I make up a pesto with walnuts, oil and cheese, let the dogs out for a pee and scramble to re-accessorize and brush the pesto out of my teeth in time for the mud stenciling meeting…more on that tomorrow.
Log of my chores & activities for Thursday, June 4 2009
My chore today was to water the indoor plants – an endless task. I guess I hadn’t fully noticed how many indoor plants Nance had, but it took me at least an hour, especially with all the water spilling, overflowing, and seeping out of the pots that I then had to wipe up.
I also refilled the sawdust bucket so we could continue to use the dry toilet. Nance has told me in no uncertain terms that I am not to be involved with emptying it. Given all the water I’ve been spilling that’s probably OK – but I am still curious.
And I met some of the neighborhood kids for the first time. They were playing in the bushes in Nance’s parking strip and gave me a tour of their clubhouse in the bushes which included a AirFreshner tree hanging from a branch, a radio and a traffic cone.
Log of my chores & activities at the Urban Homestead for Wednesday, June 3 2009
It is cold and rainy today – unseasonably so for Chicago (meanwhile, my friends back in Seattle are emailing me with tales of 90 degree heat and blazing sun -blast!). More weeding in the afternoon; this time the chickens get everything. As I’m cleaning up after dinner, I have a slight water mishap when I dump the water bucket under the sink. I move the bucket slightly so I can scoop the water, and then forget to move it back under the drain pipe. There is some spillage and subsequent wipe-up.
I take a walk to the grocery store (and the adjacent thrift store), which has tons of Mexican food and, according to Nance, is the only place in the neighborhood with even a small selection of organic and better quality foods. Lots of the stores in this neighborhood seem to be just phone cards and sugar snacks – it’s a fairly poor, predominantly Mexican neighborhood that is probably not deemed worthy of fresh anything, much less organic. The store sells the “local” tortilla chips that are made at the tortilla chip factory right up the street. I pick up some plus some avocados, plantain chips, Malta Goya, some grape juice for Nance’s vinegar mother and some olive oil.
At about 4 AM I am awakened by Carlotta, who is meowing in that special way that a cat does when she has caught something. Nance had told me that Carlotta is an expert mouser, so I pay little attention, just assume that she has indeed brought a mouse home, and fall back asleep. I am soon awakened by the sound of Carlotta eating said mouse on the foot of my bed. It’s a hideous crunch crunch crunch of little bones and impossible to sleep through, but since Carlotta doesn’t seem to be making a mess, I take some photos and wait till she’s done, and then put the last remains – the head and one foot – on the windowsill for later disposal. The next morning when I am relaying the story to Nance I realize that the mouse was actually a baby rat. In my sleepiness the night before I had failed to put together that elongated head + slightly larger size + naked tail + creepy handlike paws = RAT. Ugh. I was quite proud of Carlotta for not letting it get into the house, and for doing such a neat and tidy job of ruthlessly eating (almost) the entire thing – all despite the fact that she is quite glamorous and fancy-furry.
Log of my chores and activities at the Urban Homestead, Tuesday June 2, 2009
In return for my stay at the Urban Homestead, I perform daily chores. Tonight my assignment was weeding the garden / gathering salad greens for dinner. Nance showed me several edible weeds growing in her garden (and probably yours): wild spinach AKA lambsquarter, wild sorrel, gobo (AKA burdock), shiso, and of course the classic dandelion. This whole exercise is a revelation. I buy burdock roots at the PCC like they’re a delicacy (and they are, at $5 a pound) – at the same time I’m pulling them out of my garden. Ever the engineer’s daughter, I love the efficiency of being able to accomplish two tasks with just one chore. The salad is delicious. Any weeds we don’t want go to the chickens.