A man plops on the sodden ground, for it is not the modern era of convenience, the civility of fast and instantly gratifying, an epoch of the couch and the television. He has earned his rest.
What he sees is real, a first person glance into a nature documentary. The grasses have become amber, stiff. All about, the chirpy business of birds and boughs and their night songs. Before him, grasses and plants of the riverbanks arrange themselves in orderly procession, a collection of food stuffs, not quite a meal. Words such as meal and family have not been invented, yet he knows of their substance. He harvests from the land when time and season permit, eats it then and there if fire is unneeded. There is no ritual, no prayer. The ritual is with the people he eats with, more than the time and place and even the food. The prayer goes into his mouth, and not out. That is the origin of dinner.
His gather ranges from big to small, slim to fat, juicy to potentially poisonous. He can put names to several now: cattail; leek; fennel; lotus root; potato; cucumber. He needn’t say wild, for they are all wild. And when wild is all that is familiar, all that you know, all you are, there is no other existence.
I have seen a few wild cucumbers myself on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. They are small and scraggly and hardly a bite. They are like miniature daikon, with specks of dirt that cling stubbornly. Yet the flavors they hold are beyond their size. There’s a slight bitterness at the end, a perfect hint of green. (The wild cucumber has no fake, waxy green armor, only a patch of leaves on the top.)
What does it mean when others describe a food as earthy? They taste of the earth? Of dirt? But is that not unclean and soiled? Of organisms small and dead that have cycled through the layers of the ground that carry all our feet, all that has ever been on our tiny spot of island. It is more than sensations on your tongue and the feeling in your mouth and the satisfaction in the gut. But it is a feeling, a nostalgia pointing directly to the firmament. You begin to understand earthy when you eat a part of the world. It’s a feeling that the cells of living food tells you. And they become a part of you, and they impart a heavy wisdom, though they are just plant fibers fashioned from the soil and the light of the sun.
The man spots something else, something odd. It is a longish root, longer than the others, as tall as his son that passed away last autumn. The flowers are no more, the leaves, shriveled and dead of green, as with the cattails, their dandelion tops spread far and away by the wind. He wants to bite in, but he knows better. Roots are hard and hardy. He should not eat them uncooked. They can be acrid, and will spoil the stomach for many unbearable days. Night will fall soon and he will have fire, to cook and to stave the edge of darkness away.
He slices the tall, muddy root that resembles a carrot. It is soaked in the ribs of a wicker basket, hanging off the side of the flat river boat. The trembling stream runs past. He wonders if it will taste like lotus root or the strange other tubers he has grown fond for. The hare has been cleaned and spitted. He licks his lips and waits, watching the crackling of the fire.
My father and I have also made discoveries at water’s edge. We walked the drying creeks of a small town-city. Thinking back, I’m not sure why we made these hikes. Was it to teach me? And what, exactly? There were wild gooseberries that flourished on its outskirts. He snatched them from the tall stalks that could easily be dismissed for another weed, outstretched his open palms. “Eat it,” he said, with a note of curiosity. He only said. It was no command to obey, and yet, whether in jest or in earnest, I did not hesitate. I cannot remember if they were tart or sweet, and in what proportions, only that they were tiny, perfectly green, different and delicious, and perhaps a bit sticky. How did my father know these things that primitive man had to discover for himself? He was a brass laborer, with a sixth grade education from a developing country. He could not tell you what a star was, or why they were pinned against the background of night, or knew how to read a Britannica or botanical field guide. And what were we doing reenacting these men long gone when we had the ease and comforts of supermarkets?
It was the same for the pioneer man that put burdock into the vernacular. What courageousness and desperation it took, I’m sure. But it’s a nearly dead language, to which only few Asian cultures still celebrate. It’s difficult to cultivate and with little yields. And certainly, it does not have the demand of mushrooms, which strangely, must have been even more bizarre for the first forager. Though I can imagine that that discovery was much less painful (unless if the poisonous variety was found). I can easily see a burdock and mushroom dish in harmony.
But what does it taste like? Burdock tastes like burdock, just as gooseberries taste like gooseberries, and the other white meat tastes like whatever it happens to be and not actually chicken. It’s a food with nuance, though I can hear some already complaining of its blandness. But because the world and our refined palettes need not be drained of another color, it’s a food that should not go into obscurity. It’s something worth trying many times, like good art, until you get it. The reward will be the simplest, most unique delight that can only be called gobo, or burdock.
Story by HVH