Good news: Your weedy yard is actually a wild greens farm

| 08 Jul 2014 | 01:00

There’s nothing to eat in the house. You could a) run to the store or b) grab your copy of Foraging and Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook, and walk out your front door with a basket. Check the book to see which of the rangy plants growing around your stoop match the drawings, sauté those greens with butter or olive oil, sprinkle with salt, add a squirt of lemon and presto, you’ve got a “potherb” — plus a new outlook on your yard full of ever-encroaching “weeds.”

The book’s master recipes are so simple that they seem less like recipes than like some basic knowledge you should have learned as a child. Each master recipe branches into more complex variations, but when something is that easy to read and use, it’s a pretty good bet that it took a long time to write. And re-write.

It did. The self-published hardcover, which picked up a gold medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards in the cooking and nutrition category, was a four-year collaboration between herbalist Dina Falconi and botanical illustrator Wendy Hollender, neighbors in the Rondout Valley. Before that, it had been simmering in Falconi’s imagination for a long, long while.

As a street kid growing up among the broken city lots of the 1960’s and 1970’s Lower East Side, Falconi noticed and was inspired by the weeds busting through the concrete. Around age 11, Falconi, who’d been plagued by headaches, made “a very distinct choice to stop eating junk food, read labels, start cooking my own meals, stuff like that.”

“I half-foraged in the city,” she said. “I was amazed to see dandelion and lambs quarter sprouting out of the concrete. It was beautiful and reassuring. But I wouldn’t say I wanted to eat from there.”

It was after college, at Colgate then Bard, that Falconi made what she calls her “commitment” to wildcrafting: she remained in the Hudson Valley, living first in Kerhonkson, then Marbletown, becoming a clinical herbalist and educator, making small batch herbal tinctures and medicines from her “wild, whacky” – and locally renowned – gardens.

All the while, Falconi knew there was a book that needed writing, but the visual element eluded her. There were plenty of photographers around who would have been happy to work with her, but Falconi is particular – and as all gardeners must be, patient. What she had in mind was a botanical illustrator.

So when Wendy Hollender moved to town, Falconi pounced. Hollender, whose posters for the National Peanut Board are currently plastered all over New York’s subways, moved from Manhattan to a four-acre horse farm in Accord in 2009, to live amongst the plants that she draws for a living. She intended to split her time between country and city, “but as soon as I got here, I thought, this is my home, I never want to leave it.” She moved upstate full-time.

Within six months of Hollender’s arrival in town, Falconi had approached her with the book idea.

“I didn’t hesitate for a second, because I knew her reputation,” said Hollender. “So I said sure – not realizing what I had gotten myself into.”

For the first year of their collaboration, Hollender was so busy drawing the weeds Falconi pointed out – taking plants home, examining them under a microscope, dissecting them, and going back out for fresh samples – that she didn’t eat them.

The second year, though, Falconi “started to make sure she’d have something for me to eat, every time we’d get together, like a berry pie, kind of like an incentive,” said Hollender. “I first started eating her food, then I started collecting and making my own.”

Now Hollender forages twice a day. “I do a lot of wild salads. I also like the berry recipes, the coulis. I prepare all my berries from the book, then I use them all year long from the freezer.”

The day Dirt spoke to Falconi, she and Hollender were going on a walk to plan the sequel — and, probably, to find their dinner.

Foraging and Feasting is available at