The food movement that’s been going on for the last decade or so has been a wonderful treat for those of us who enjoy not only eating delicious, interesting food, but learning about it, trying to prepare it at home and exposing our families to it. Then there are the times it feels like a huge scam that’s been perpetuated on those of us gullible enough to buy into it—and I’m not using the word “buy” figuratively here.
One of my first experiences questioning whether the food movement was one big joke perpetuated on us so-called “foodies,” came at an expensive restaurant in the Napa Valley.
Now if a week went by during my childhood when my father didn’t walk in the door spewing profanities and the word “nettles” in the same sentence, I don’t remember it. My father would often spend time working outdoors and to say that nettles were the bane of his existence would be putting it too lightly. They seemed to grow everywhere he was working, they grew like weeds, and they were hard to get rid of. When he would walk through them, the skin on his legs would sting, and he would have a reaction.
Later in my life, I found myself, somehow, someway, in a restaurant in St. Helena called the Martini House. It was pre-kids, and my husband and I were out to eat with another couple–a couple that liked to eat good food, seemed to have the finances to afford it, and was generous enough to bring us along for the ride and treat us to a wonderful night out.
The more I eat in expensive restaurants, though, the worse I feel the odds are of getting a memorable meal that’s worth the price. I would put the odds at about one-in-three. This particular restaurant could be described as memorable, but for me, it was for the wrong reason. I remember nothing, absolutely nothing, about what I ordered or what we ate that night. I only remember that one of their signature dishes had nettles in it. Oh, what my father would have done to that dish. When I watch the movie “A Christmas Story,” and I see the father in the movie battling with the furnace, I think of my own father and the nettles. He waged a vigorous battle against nettles for decades, and at the end of three of those decades, here I was in a small restaurant, one that resembled a house, with a long line of people waiting to get inside to pay a lot of money to eat nettles. There I sat, looking at the menu, wondering whether everybody who ordered the dish would walk out in pain, with mouths that stung, from the stinging nettles. There must be something to nettles that I’m not understanding, but I don’t know how they made the transition to dreaded weed to culinary delicacy.
Speaking of dreaded weed to delicacy, another of my childhood memories found its way onto the menu of an expensive restaurant recently.
Once a year, there was mutiny in our house when we saw my mother walking out into the front yard with a stainless steel bowl to gather our dinner. Yes, I said, “to our front yard to gather our dinner.” This signaled our annual serving of dandelions. She would carefully pick off the jagged leaves of, coincidentally, another weed that caused my father much duress, and bring them in the house to wash them and sauté them. What felt like an unnecessary punishment to us as kids at the dinner table is now being referred to as a “super food.” The list of nutrients in dandelions is impressive. They are best consumed in spring or early summer, and the French like to pair them with ingredients like hard-boiled eggs, bacon and Dijon dressing. In a restaurant—any restaurant—they will cost much, much more than when they are pulled from the family front yard.
While I can proudly say I have never paid money to eat dandelions or nettles (in fact, I have never eaten nettles at all), I do admit to having paid to eat radishes. I’m not referring to a beautiful, large salad of spring greens with fresh radishes and a light, homemade raspberry vinaigrette. I’m talking about an appetizer that consisted of, well, buttered radishes. It turns out, while most of us think eating raw radishes is something that you do when the celery and carrots run low in the veggie tray at your neighbors’ backyard BBQ, the chefs at fancy restaurants think of radishes as a miracle vegetable. They are a miracle not only because of the many nutrients they contain, but because they can be buttered, tossed on a plate with a couple of slices of baguette and be passed off as a sophisticated culinary treat that restaurant goers will pay between $7 and $14 to consume. When I first saw it on the menu of a locally-sourced, sustainable, farm-to-fork restaurant, I read the description several times in order to make sure I understood the appetizer. It turns out, yes, I did. I was going to be ordering sliced radishes with some butter spread on them. I wouldn’t have done it on my own, but I was overruled this time by my dining companion. I quickly learned the appetizer was really good, but the thing that made it tasty was the butter. I reached the conclusion that if you have good butter–the creamy, real stuff, that has salt added into it after-the-fact and that has been set out at room temperature and allowed to get soft—if you have butter like that, it will make anything taste good.
Like dandelions, the French may ultimately be the ones responsible for putting buttered radishes on the menus of fine restaurants. Apparently, the French have been snacking on buttered radishes for centuries, but it typically happens at the hands of mothers who bring the radishes in from the backyard garden.
I grew radishes this winter. Like most things you grow yourself, I was surprised how much better they tasted coming out of my little garden than they do coming out of the produce department at the supermarket. I was even more surprised that my kids recognized they tasted better than the ones from the store. We washed them and ate them raw, but my hope is that someday they will get a chance to eat radishes in a nice restaurant where they’ll be served with a homemade baguette and some creamy butter while my kids, who are now adults who can afford to buy their own food, are sitting among good friends and enjoying a night out. In my dream, they will be chuckling and talking about how, back when they were children, their mother would grow radishes in the garden and serve them raw, and they were just as delicious and cost nothing but the price of the seeds.