Book Review: A Feast of Weeds by Luigi Ballerini

A Feast of Weeds by Luigi Ballerini

The evening a review copy of A Feast of Weeds: A Literary Guide to Foraging and Cooking Wild Edible Plants came in I couldn’t put it down. I chased Kelly and our guest Nancy Klehm around the house to read excerpts: on the obscene etymology of the Italian word for the Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo), on the history of Mallow (Malva parviflora). And who knew that Italians eat red poppy leaves?

Ballerini is a professor of Italian at the University of California, Los Angeles. But don’t worry, this is not a dry academic tome. Ballerini is erudite, witty, even bawdy at times. Ballerini’s book infuses foraging with history and meaning,

Gathering, cooking and reading seems like a triad of imperatives much more appetizing than the believing, obeying, and fighting through which one famous twentieth-century dictator tried to reduce Italy to idiocy (largely succeeding) and the buying, pretending not to know, and not giving a damn about others with which his political heirs pursue that same design.

Each chapter profiles a common foragable plant and includes a set of Italian style recipes for what to do with them such as spaghetti with nettles and purslane frittata. The wild plants Ballerini writes about are found in Italy, but most (minus capers, sadly) can be found all over North America. This is not a guide book–it assumes you already know how to identify the plants Ballerini is discussing.

I had one quibble with the chapter on prickly pear cactus–you do not need to peel the pads to eat them. This is an understandable mistake for an Italian to make. For some odd reason only the people of the New World eat the pads of prickly pear–in the Mediterranean and Middle-East, where the plant has been imported, only the fruit is consumed.

I’m looking forward to cooking up some of the recipes, which were contributed by Ada De Santis, who runs a farm on the Salentine peninsula of southern Puglia. Thanks to A Feast of Weeds, there will be many future evenings, “gathering, cooking and reading.”

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  1. Do you have experience with a book that has lots of colored pictures to identify edible weeds? I suppose I could go to BAM and try to browse. Standing/walking is not on my list of things I can easily do right now.

    • I like the internet for this because there are so many pictures available — once you have a name, you can go into google images and see the same plant 100 different ways.

      This is a crazy website — but if you have the patience to find your way around it, you’ll see that he actually does a good job explaining edible weeds. It’s a place to start:

      Things you might have in your yard (names to start with): chickweed, plantain, curly dock, wild lettuce, nettles, mallow, dandelion, purslane, sorrel (or wood sorrel) lambsquarters…

  2. Yes I am human. And I am an independent bookseller. Please, please, if you are so homegrown, when you post a book on your blog, link it to your local independent bookstore, or Indiebound. PLEASE do not make it automatically go to Amazon. Perhaps Amazon pays you a lot of money, which they are very good at, but they are not good at being human and having those homegrown relationships that independent bookstores do. Be smart and human. Thank you, Annie

  3. I am sure you have read Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons- are you old enough to remember the Grape Nuts commercials he was in? I loved the book, I love the idea of foraging, but was disappointed about the amount of processing most of the wild edibles required. And he had drawings, making it impossible to identify the real thing.

  4. I do look up plants on the internet, but other than dandelions, clover, St. Augustine grass, and rye grass, there is nothing I can identity. I knew those long before there was internet. Holding a book close to the plant and reading is best for me. A list of things to look for certainly helps.

    I know I have wild strawberries, but the hens claimed those. I think I have Plantain, but all of it is only growing in paths I walk in the grass.

    I just thought there might be a book that someone knew and had used.

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