Eat A Weed: Foraging for Lamb’s Quarters

August 18, 2008 at 5:32 pm

Michael Gebert

Here’s an experiment. Go outside, find a tasty-looking weed in the alley, and pick off a leaf and eat it.

What? You’re still sitting at your computer? Of course, most of us in the city would never dream of plucking things off the plants we pass by and putting them in our mouths. Mostly, this is wise. Many plants are poisonous; even ones that aren’t may have grown up in highly questionable soil. If you’re living in the Herkimer Lofts (formerly the Herkimer Mercury-Plating and Lead-Smelting Works), it’s best that you don’t go around nibbling on the stuff around your parking lot, and not just because all your neighbors own German Shepherds.

But even if I set your mind entirely at rest about the soil, the plant species, and how high a German Shepherd can aim, you’d probably still feel a little funny about eating stuff growing on its own in the city. Yet, of course, nibbling on what you ran across in the course of your day was something humans everywhere did until a very short time ago, and still do in many parts of the world. The development of a sudden inhibition about such things, and the loss of shared common knowledge about what you can and can’t eat in your own environment, is an extremely recent development in human society.

Recently I’ve been working on a Sky Full of Bacon video podcast about foraging in the Chicago area, and one of the plants that everyone I’ve talked to has brought up is in its peak season right now. Once you’re aware of it, you’ll see it everywhere in the Chicago area– there are probably five big patches, and innumerable smaller plants, in the two blocks between my house and the nearest El stop.

The plant is Chenopodium album, popularly known as Lamb’s Quarters, or Fat-hen in England, or goosefoot or pigweed or many other names suggested by the leaf’s footprint-like shape. It’s easy to recognize, and it has a flavor and texture reminiscent of two greens you’ve certainly eaten– a bit of spinach’s rubberiness at first, followed by a sharp note similar to arugula’s.

Fairly tall stalks produce a leaf that’s readily identified when it’s young due to that footprint profile and the combination on some leaves of a dark green top and a whitish-green underside, both of which can be coated with a very fine fuzz. As the leaves get bigger they lose the footprint shape but are still fairly recognizable because of their serrated edges. More scientific botanical information is available here.

Should you eat it? That’s a calculated risk, based on how you feel about the soil in your area. But at the very least, simply knowing how to recognize it will alert you to the fact that edible, native plants are growing all around us, without any help from us. The fact that they’re not in grocery stores has less to do with what we could be eating than with what someone else has already made a profitable business out of supplying.

If you do decide to eat it, young leaves like those found right now can be added to a salad, where like arugula they’ll add a slightly bitter note that sharpens up a bowl of lettuce. Steam them or cook them in a small amount of water and they’ll shrink a little and turn dark, but not fall apart like spinach; now you’ll get an earthier sort of taste, very much like collard greens. As with any green, what you do with them from there is virtually limitless. This blog has a recipe for giving them a Central American taste with hot sauce and red wine vinegar.

In a month or two they’ll reportedly produce a small dark grain, which reveals that the plant is actually a relative of quinoa. However, the only practical mention of the grain I’ve found suggests that harvesting them in any quantity is long and tedious work, another reason you don’t see lamb’s quarters in a commercial setting.

Even if you don’t choose to actually put urban-grown lamb’s quarters in your mouth, there’s something satisfying about suddenly spotting it growing all over the city. You’re tapped into something secret and universal that others don’t know about, and can wear the same silently knowing look as people who are clued into the alien-Illuminati conspiracy that really runs everything.

And really, there’s something irrational about consuming so many industrial products without a second thought because, hey, how could pesticides or HFCS or microwave popcorn be bad for you?, but balking at putting a leaf in your mouth that’s growing right in front of your house because it hasn’t had the blessings of the agricultural-industrial complex and spent a certain time in a plastic bag before you eat it. It’s local food. It probably won’t kill you. At least, something non-local you bought at a store will probably do the job first.



  1. David Hammond says:

    “simply knowing how to recognize it will alert you to the fact that edible, native plants are growing all around us, without any help from us.”

    There’s food everywhere. Earlier this summer I discovered purslane; after reading this post, I went in the yard to find lamb’s quarters growing all over (I am sure I’ve dumped pounds of this edible green into the waste can in the past few months as I cleared and “weeded” my garden).

    Conversation I had a few minutes ago:

    ME (holding fist full of chenopodium, to The Wife): You know what this is?

    THE WIFE (bent over, picking through through trash I had thrown out earler in the morning, looking up, skeptical): Weeds?

    ME: No, lunch.

  2. Chenopodium album (Lamb’s Quarters) is an introduced non-native plant that seems to sprout everywhere. I have no objection to your recommending people eat it. Please, though, do make a distinction between eating introduced weeds (try some garlic mustard!) and foraging for and eating native plants, that is, plants that evolved here in the Chicago Region over thousands of years.

    The last thing we want is people pulling native plants out of the soil in alleys or painstakingly restored natural areas and eating them or even replanting them in their gardens. While we hope everyone will plant native plants at home, the plants should always be purchased from a reputable nursery or obtained in exchange through an organization like Wild Ones, for the next several decades at least.

    Illinois native plants have been decimated almost to extinction. Let’s give them and the native fauna that depend on them for food a break. We have the option of shopping in the grocery store. Our native insects and birds don’t!

    Shirlee Hoffman, Native Habitats, Openlands

  3. art says:

    Surprisingly, I had some lamb’s quarters growing in my balcony planter box and had been looking forward to eating it.

    The other night I was preparing pasta and decided that this would be an opportunity to prepare it.

    So, when the rigatoni was almost ready (about 5 min. left) I dumped the clean lamb’s quarters leaves into the boiling salted water. The pasta and leaves were then drained and tossed with warm cannellini beans, lemon zest, freshly grated parmesan and cracked black pepper.

    The lamb’s quarters gave the pasta just the right amount of green leafy flavor and a little bit of a slippery “seaweedy” kind of texture.

    One of my new favorite foraged foods!

  4. art says:

    ooops…forgot the extra virgin olive oil!

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