Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Frying Weeds with Uncle John

By Sal Emma

It started out a typical family get-together. A Sunday in May. Mom’s birthday. The usual cast of characters, packed around the long table in the basement, tucking in pizza, chicken, sausage and other treats typical to a big Italian family party.

What was unusual was the amazing weather. Parties in this house normally center around major holidays. And in this part of the world, major holidays equal miserable weather. Thanksgiving and Easter, cold and wet. Christmas, freezing. And Independence Day in New Jersey? Dogs spontaneously erupting into flames between doghouse and water bowl.

The weather introduced a whole new topic of argument into this already argumentative clan: windows or air conditioning? Those of us still clinging to the brain cells we were born with know that in this part of the world, nice days are few and far between and it would be an affront to God to destroy the naturally moderate air through electric sterilization.

Of course the louder camp won the day – the shrill and demanding – those totally dependent on electric motors for sustenance. Every window and door closed tight on this, the most beautiful day of the year.

Trouble is, there’s no air conditioning in Mom’s basement. Even without it, the air-haters continued their campaign against oxygen. The one door that was bringing in outside air was bolted and sealed, sparing us from certain horrors of exposure to the atmosphere.

There we sat, in a damp, clammy, airless cinderblock vault, with only a veneer of waterproof paint separating us from icy groundwater, slowly perking its way towards the Delaware River. Perfect conditions for last year’s turnips and potatoes. The skin on the back of my neck nearly crawled off.

Before the pizza was cold, I planned my escape.

“Hey, Uncle John. Wanna go get some cardoons?”

He paused in mid-bite.


“Right at the end of the street.”

He finished his pizza in one gulp. “Let’s go.”

He stood up and announced “I better finish this sausage before we leave.” With that, he speared a link from the serving bowl and shoved it whole into his maw.

This was a classic Uncle John maneuver. The incorrigible class clown, my dad’s brother will do anything for a laugh, even if it involves risk of injury or indigestion.

With an audience, nothing is off limits. This is the guy who once dropped his pants in the middle of a kitchen filled with relatives, prompting Grandma Margaret to slap his cotton-clad hindquarters with all her might. He straightened and fastened his belt, explaining that he was only fixing his socks.

He typically ends a family meal by shoving inordinate amounts of food into his mouth, be it meatballs, cookies or cake – whatever is in easy reach at the moment. This has been ongoing for more than six decades. We once witnessed him end a meal by eating the paper from a chocolate cupcake, washing it down with strong coffee.

John’s serious about food. When we were little, there were often more people at Grandmom’s house for Sunday spaghetti than there were chairs to go around the assortment of tables scattered throughout the kitchen and TV room. This situation usually prompted brother-in-law Joe to suggest that the kids eat first, rather than jamming elbows with the whole crew.

Sunday after Sunday, John’s stock response to Joe's suggestion never wavered: “F*** the kids.”

Can’t say I blame him. The spaghetti was al dente, the sauce was hot and the hand-rolled meatballs were at their peak of tender, yielding perfection. In hindsight, he was right. F*** the kids.

Though seemingly just another line to get a laugh, his rejoinder belies a true passion for good food. John is a throwback to another time, when nothing was wasted and little was processed. He goes out of his way for the out-of-the-ordinary, like scrambled eggs with calf’s brains or braised pig’s feet. Chicken’s feet simmered in tomato sauce are a favorite antipasto. A masterful cook and gourmet, he might eat unusual food. But he’ll never eat bad food.

Since it was such a nice day, I suggested we walk to the field. Uncle John showed little enthusiasm for that plan. Since my car was penned in, my brother tossed me the keys to his $80,000 Mercedes. Well, on second thought, maybe driving wasn’t such a bad idea.

John rode shotgun. My 13-year-old, Gordon, climbed in the back, about to witness an age-old tradition kept alive by a dwindling few food-crazy Italians like the two nuts from a common gene pool in the front seat.

We were there in 60 seconds.

In Mom’s neighborhood, the cardoons grow on the edge of a particularly hazardous suburban intersection with no room for parking. I handed John my pocketknife and dropped them off, circling until the harvest was compete. On my first return pass, John had nearly disappeared, crawling through waist-high meadow grass. Gordon faced the road, looking for cops. And I saw that he clutched the prize – what would have looked like bunches of celery to the untrained eye. My eye knew better. John was working quickly.

Circling around again, I cringed to see a police car headed in their direction. Not that they were doing anything wrong. They were just picking weeds on a small plot of neglected public land. Trouble was, it looked like they were burying a body. To my surprise, the cruiser cruised right by, never even giving the foragers a glance.

On the third pass I stopped. The boy’s armload had increased several fold. They jumped in and that one-of-a-kind pungent, earthy cardoon musk filled the sedan’s plush interior. One whiff and I’m back 30 years, sucking them down in Grandmom’s kitchen.

You’re probably wondering what the hell cardoons are, anyway. For starters, they’re not cardoons. The cardoon is a kind of wild thistle that grows in warm places like Italy and California. It’s closely related to the artichoke and prized by both Italians and Japanese. The plant that Italian-Americans call carduna is known to botanists as Arctium minus or common burdock. Also related to artichoke – and just as delicious.

Hunters and fishermen know it for its broad leaves and seedpods – the spiny “hitchhikers” that fasten themselves in great numbers to outerwear and dogs, hitching a free ride to new territory.

When I was a kid, the neighborhood was thick with them. But most of the spots the burdock loved has been replaced by asphalt and irrigated lawns. Yet they hang on, staking their claim on any undisturbed bit of scrubland they can get their long taproots into.

As I admired Uncle John’s handiwork, he seized an opportunity for a laugh, biting off the top of one stalk in a feigned test of tenderness. “Ach! They taste like dog piss!” he exhorted, before spitting the contents of his mouth out the window.

The window, however was open only a crack, as none of us could locate the window buttons in the stylemobile. Only a fraction of his spittle made it out. The lion’s share clung in a pattern of bright green spots on the pricey German safety glass. By the time we completed the minute drive back to mom’s, I could hardly see through tears of laughter and stomach pain.

John headed to the kitchen to tend to the cardoons while I washed the car window, succumbing to another attack of furious laughter. When motor control returned, I joined him, scrubbing the stalks and boiling them in salted water until they softened and turned bright green. I whipped eggs, crushed in some garlic cloves, and seasoned breadcrumbs with grated cheese and pepper.

We rooted around the cupboards until we found the perfect skillet, as big as a manhole cover. For the next hour, I breaded and John sautéed, filling Mom’s kitchen with a generations-old aroma of freshly fried road weeds as we traded stories of Grandmom Margaret, the venerable, irreverent coal miner’s wife who had taught us to cook them. Had she been here, she’d have surely observed that the eggs were “fresh from the chicken’s ass.”

We carried them to the airless root cellar to savor the fruits of our labor. Hands reached to grab stalks of unique flavor – something like asparagus, something like the heart of an artichoke, encased in a crunchy crust of pan-fried golden crumbs and cheese. This, from a plant the USDA classifies as a “noxious weed.” What do they know? We gorged.

If Grandma Margaret had been there, I know what she would have said, inspired by the laxative effect of eating freshly cut wild greens: “Tomorrow, you’ll fill the bowl.”