Backyard Weeds are Always on the Menu
Rhode Island farmer teaches people how to eat flavorful and nutritious wild plants
August 3, 2016
WEST GREENWICH, R.I. — Brett Mayette remembers the little boy’s incredulity.
“A few years ago, I did a cooking demonstration at the Good Earth Organic Gardening Center (in Hope),” Mayette said. “There was a little nine-year-old boy and he’s watching me and he says, ‘What are those things?’ And I said, ‘Oh, those are just weeds.’”
Weeds? At a cooking demonstration?
“He just froze for like 10 or 15 seconds; I thought his head was going to explode,” Mayette recalled with a laugh. “Because he probably has a father or an uncle who gets dressed up, in all the chemicals — like, he couldn’t reconcile. The reaction from the kids is priceless.”
Surprising as it may be, Mayette argues that eating weeds — or, as he prefers to call them, “foraged, wild plants” — can transform our health, brighten our eating experiences and upend the industrial food system.
Mayette is the founder of Conscious Cuisine, a small business that teaches people to see the abundance of nutrient-dense plants hidden in their backyards. He champions the cause that common, wild plants are an important part of a healthy, diverse diet. He will teach you how to use them.
“When someone really tries to start learning about health and wellness, it’s overwhelming,” Mayette said. “My goal was to synthesize some basic health tenants so people could understand them.”
He holds nutrition talks, “weed-walks” and cooking classes on foraging and cooking nutrient-rich wild greens. Common wisdom might tell us to pull up these plants and discard them, or, in the case of seaweed, to leave it lying on the shores of Narragansett Beach. But Mayette lets those weeds flourish in his gardens, and knows a healthy piece of seaweed when he sees one.
“A cup of dandelion leaves has half of the vitamins and minerals we need every day,” Mayette said. “Everyone should have a weed garden in their yard.”
He believes food is medicine. “Diversity of diet” is his mantra and prescription. He formed some of the foundational principles of his business after hearing a lecture on “evolutionary nutrition” by Kevin Spelman, Ph.D., at the International Herbal Symposium at Wheaton College. Mayette calls Spelman’s talk his “ah-ha” moment.
“We’re still wired on a genetic, cellular level to eat a huge diversity of foods,” Mayette said.
Spelman recommends eating 150 to 180 plant foods every six to eight weeks, to build the healthiest diet based on our evolutionary history. Putting wild greens in your salads and adding some creative ingredients to your usual recipes gets you most of the way there.
Dandelions, purslane, sheep sorrel, lambsquarter, stinging nettle and garlic mustard are only a few of the many wild plants I tasted while walking with Mayette.
He bounded through his verdant garden in West Greenwich, handing me leaves to taste and explaining each plant’s usefulness. The beds looked disorganized to me, but Mayette word-smithed each mass of greens into a potential dinner plate — a wild pesto pasta, a vegetable-infused miso soup, or a salad packed with dozens of different greens.
“The goal was always to make preventative health knowledge digestible, to get people to feel confident enough to start their own education and self-learning,” Mayette said of his cooking classes and other business offerings. “For any dish that uses a green like kale, or collard greens or spinach, you could definitely substitute wild plants.”
Better flavor and better health are the side effects of Mayette’s wild-foods cooking regimen. His goal is to make each person’s first taste of wild foods delicious.
“The best restaurants in the world have foragers on staff, and they’re out getting these unusual, hard-to-source ingredients,” said Mayette, speaking from his 40 years of experience in the high-end restaurant industry. “One of the reasons that chefs are sourcing these foods is because they have better flavor. They’re so nutrient and vitamin dense and healthy — but the side benefit is they have such exquisite flavor.”
The future of Conscious Cuisine is full of cooking classes, pop-up dinners and perhaps even a children’s book. The benefits of a weed-conscious society extend far beyond fancy dinner plates.
A better understanding of the wild foods that grow in our backyards can build a stronger food system in the age of industrial food production and worldwide shipping.
“Most of the fruits and vegetables — fruits especially — they’re packed unripe and then they’re put in an oxygen-depleted environment, ethylene gas … and that’s how they ripen,” Mayette said. “It’s just stupid. And that’s dead food, it’s not healthy food.”
Mayette has plans for a “vitamin garden” that would help people grow all of the nutrients they need. He noted that using wild plants can help people save money on nutritional supplements. Mayette also hopes that a better understanding of wild foods can hedge against “food deserts” — neighborhoods where healthy food is hard to come by.
“Think about an elementary school in an urban area in a food desert,” Mayette said. “Kids could go out into the window boxes at lunch time and eat a handful of weeds.”
I work with volunteers on a community farm, and they are often pulling weeds. It is a real puzzle to many when I mention that the gorgeous purslane or lambs quarters we are pulling up are just as tasty and more packed with nutrients then the lettuce (for example) we are weeding! It’s a great conversation starter.