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Blog post

Eating outside the box

What makes a weed a weed?
May 22, 2018
By Laura Shine

Picture your ideal salad.

Crunchy lettuce, fresh cucumber, sweet red pepper? Juicy tomato slices and delicate basil leaves?

I’m willing to bet you didn’t include lamb’s quarters, purslane, creeping Charlie, or cleavers. If those names don’t sound familiar, this term sure will: weeds. The bane of vegetable gardeners and grass growers alike, “weeds” are all around us. We don’t know much about them, we generally can’t tell them apart, but this we do know: we don’t want them around. They’re pulled out, burnt, or doused in herbicides before they can take over our carefully curated environment.

As I checked on my yet unplanted vegetable garden this morning, I wondered: what makes a weed a weed? Why do we decide that some plants are fit for the plate while others head straight to the compost pile? Can we rethink and expand some of the strict rules we create to define edibility?

Rethinking the garden – and our plates

Over the course of the coming year, my blog posts as a Concordia Public Scholar will investigate and challenge our ideas about edibility. I will propose different avenues for thinking about the foods we eat and the ones we don’t, questioning our choices and suggesting ways to expand our repertoire. My PhD research focuses on the acceptance of novel foods, with a specific interest in edible insects. I look at how they’re perceived, how foods containing them are promoted, and how acceptance evolves over time.

Because they elicit such powerful reactions in most people – that’s the “yuck factor” – bugs are a great avenue for shedding light on how our acceptance of novel foods can evolve. During the coming year, I’ll dig into some of the parameters that condition and shape our acceptance of new foods. I’ll tackle bugs as a potential source of nutrients, but also other foods that present particular challenges to the average consumer. To kick off this investigation on a seasonal note, I looked out into the garden patch and decided to undertake some weeding.

Matter out of place

In Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Mary Douglas, an influential anthropologist of the second half of the 20th century, examined our relationship to purity and contamination. She famously stated that “Dirt is matter out of place”.

As a structuralist, Douglas tried to uncover the hidden patterns and repetitions that structured humans’ lives and provided meaning within a certain culture.For instance, she studied the rigid ways in which the English middle class organized their mealtimes, revealing a supposedly similar structure over the course of a year, a week, a day, and a single meal. Any deviation from this pattern was bound to raise eyebrows and become meaningful by virtue of its differentiation.

Structuralist frameworks in general have been vastly (and rightfully) criticized, including for their blanket beliefs in generalizable and often simplistic systems of organization. But her statement about dirt gives me pause. It supposes that what we call ‘dirt’ does not possess an intrinsic essence of dirtiness, something fundamental about it that would make it undesirable. It is a matter, like any other matter. But it is, crucially, out of place.

Mud on the living room carpet, dust under the bed, leftovers in a dirty plate – all of these matters are, in certain places, tolerable. But when they stray from the organized scheme we have agreed on, they become unacceptable. It is that departure from the structure that makes them stand out, not their particular nature.

Wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) poking through the lawn

Out in spades

So, weeds. What are they?

If we are to believe Douglas, no more than plants out of place. Wild, untamed things that grow where we don’t want them to. In my case, the vegetable patch. Presumably, I want to grow tomatoes, thyme and radishes, not stinging nettle, dandelion, or pigweed – though all of these are not only edible, but tasty and highly nutritious as well.

They’re also aggressive, invasive, and will quickly crowd out any delicate seedlings I’ve been patiently nurturing since the middle of the winter on a sunny windowsill. I don’t mind them, as long as they stay in the ditch. But I will spend a lot of time and energy trying to keep them out of the garden I’ve filled with the rich, dark and loose soil that most plants favour.

At a micro scale such as my patch, they’re a bummer. On a global scale, they’re a major nuisance, and the methods that are used to combat them have given rise to a host of environmental disasters. The pesticide runoff that pollutes waterways and kills marine life is a direct consequence of unchecked use of synthetic weed killers. The contamination of fields by GMOs and the growing control of the global seed supply by a handful of companies are linked to the development of plants genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant.

What we decide to include in our grocery aisle – and to exclude from our fields – has consequences that reach far beyond our salad bowl. As writer and activist Raj Patel points out, our tendency to favour a few “companion species” and blast all others out of existence in their wake has devastating results for our ecosystems and our health alike.

Know your enemy

Just like in many cases of perceived inedibility, lack of knowledge about the shunned substances is a limiting factor in acceptability. This theme will be a recurring one over the course of this year-long exploration. As far a foods go, we tend to favour what we know and fear what we don’t – I’ll get back to this phenomenon, called neophobia, later on.

The stranger the stuff, the more reticent we are: a new type of apple in the grocery aisle seems much less menacing than a thorny plant, or worse, a colourful mushroom growing in the garden. The flip side of this is that increasing our knowledge about the surrounding environment can enhance our willingness to try these new potential foods and expand our culinary repertoire, a boon for our health, our planet, and potentially our wallet too.

Foragers and indigenous peoples worldwide have long known that rich and varied diets can reward those that foster a respect for and a knowledge of local ecosystems. So instead of reaching for the herbicide, perhaps we should learn to reconsider which matter, exactly, is out of place here.

Warm spring salad

  • Lardons or chopped thick bacon
  • Ramps**, chopped, if available (pick sparingly; species is protected and harvesting more than 50 per person is illegal in Québec), or small garlic clove, crushed
  • Young stinging nettle leaves** (pick these with gloves and cook them well, they won’t sting anymore)
  • Dandelion** leaves
  • Other seasonally appropriate edible** weeds, as desired
  • Splash of good-quality wine or balsamic vinegar
  • Poached egg(s)

** Always make sure to correctly identify wild edibles. Some species can be highly toxic to humans. Seek expert advice whenever necessary. Harvest only in clean and safe locations.

About the author

Laura Shine is a doctoral candidate in Concordia’s Humanities program, in the fields of food anthropology, food marketing and sensory studies. She investigates the changes in attitudes and behaviours towards novel foods, with a particular focus on entomophagy. She has served as strategic consultant on the board of insect start-ups and presented talks and workshops on eating bugs in schools and university settings. In 2017, she devised and taught an undergraduate course in Food and Culture in Concordia’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Her research has been supported by scholarships from the SSHRC and the FQRSC, and by a fellowship from the Luc Beauregard Centre of Excellence in Communications Research.

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