May 15, 2012

Juicing the Back Yard. ~ Victoria Suescum

When spring rains invited the neighbor’s weeds to occupy my yard, the mounds of feral greens looked positively mouthwatering. I wondered: could I, just possibly, juice them?

Could these plants improve my sex life, clear up my skin? I saw wild promise in fresh picked, pesticide-free greens. The locavore in me was stirred. I ordered Peterson’s A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants and Googled “urban foraging.”

I had started juicing with a recipe called “The Green Machine”: a bunch of kale, a handful of spinach, one celery stalk, half a cucumber, one inch of ginger, a lemon, and two small apples. It was so refreshing that I was tempted to add a shot of vodka. When I shared this observation with my husband, he wondered if one could be made into a margarita.

The juices smelled like a freshly mowed lawn or grass crushed by your back when you lie on it daydreaming. They turned my lips green and left little flecks in my teeth. The nectars were much tastier than commercial brands.

Asanas had transformed me: I had lost weight and strengthened my core. Seeing the world upside down brought me a great, unexpected joy. I hoped juicing would take me to the next level.

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski

A friend from yoga class reported losing her appetite for processed sugars after a six day detox, and my favorite yoga teacher said she’d been invigorated by “Green Monster” breakfast smoothies. I began to imagine the ways that juicing would complement my yoga practice. Could there be a yogasm in it for me?

The guide to edible weeds arrived. Guide in hand I went to survey my yard. The recent drought had destroyed most of my lawn and the surviving St. Augustine huddled in great big ovals in the shadow of our young live oaks. Everywhere else the grass was dry as straw, and much of it had crumbled slowly into the cracked earth. The brutal three-digit summer heat was followed by a warm, wet winter. Where the St. Augustine had failed, thriving with rambunctious optimism, were weeds. Edible dandelions cheerfully dotted the ground, sow thistle and wild lettuce grew knee high.

At first the only edible green I was able to identify was a plant called cleaver and nicknamed stickyweed. There it was, in abundance: rampaging next to the cedar fence, cleaving with its two-foot-long stems to every other plant, soaking up all their sun, sucking up tons of minerals from the soil no doubt. Wow, this weed was vigorous! I wondered: might such an energetic plant be an aphrodisiac?

Other weeds, more properly behaved, remained complete enigmas. I could never remember which parts were edible and fear kept me at bay. Experts advise caution when you eat wild greens.

Never, ever eat a wild plant without checking with a local expert,” writes Green Deane in his blog Eat the Weeds. “Identify the plant beyond doubt.”

So, I carefully studied images in Peterson’s guide and emailed photographs of strange plants to an ethno-botanist who identified one of them as the supertasty ponyfoot. Without an expert to personally identify a weed and with Green Deane’s severe warnings in mind, I did not dare juice the horseshoe-shaped ponyfoot, the yellow flowers and heart shaped leaves of the wood sorrel, the double-toothed blades of sowthistle, the rafts of chickweed or the purple blooming henbit.

Photo: Bob Jenkins

I decided to stick with dandelions, pushing the yellow headed crowns down the narrow feed-tube of my old Mr. Juicer TM (manufactured by Eastern Electric); timidly at first, and then with increased energy: the long tap root, tumescent buds, scrappy blossoms and all. Whole, they tasted nasty—the plants having bloomed or gone to seed. But in the juice, they were so satisfying.

I hoped the antioxidant-rich and potassium-full weed might make my skin glow. After all, dandelions detoxify the liver and have been traditionally used in Europe to spring clean the body.

I took a sip of the juice made from these hardworking little plants, then checked my face in the mirror: were the antioxidants in the dandelions neutralizing my free radicals? Were any spots faded, creases diminished? Was it too soon? Would it ever happen? Did I look even a little bit dewy? I thought so.

My body must really have needed the vitamins, antioxidants, chlorophyll and whatnot because I craved juice every day.

At first, I noticed flatulence, an un-sexy step backward in my regimen towards inner and outer beauty. But the juices were so tasty that I stuck with my project, soon deviating from simple internet recipes based on oranges or Fuji apple and adding blueberries, pineapple, mango or kiwi. Collard greens, sharp arugula, baby kale went in too. So did the worm eaten cabbage abandoned by my neighbor from across the alley: definitely pesticide free! The juicer ejected damp pulp into its collecting basket and vibrated contentedly beneath my palms. I used pomegranate and acai juices to rinse out the last drops of chlorophyll.

Juicing experts advise adding only one fruit per recipe to avoid blood sugar spikes. I decided to juice beets to avoid over-sweetening. That was a mistake. The rock hard beets brought Mr. Juicer’s brave grating basket to a halt. Mr. Juicer let off smoke and produced a smell like burnt rubber (fortunately Mr. Juicer survived this aggression).

My Mr. Juicer is an eighteen-year-old machine, rediscovered from its dusty hiding space deep in a kitchen cupboard. It is a 250-watt centrifugal juicer and has a little metal basket with eight rows of eleven teeth arranged in a floret on the bottom, teeth whose job it is to scour the chlorophyll out of fruits and vegetables, spinning at thousands of whirrs per minute. The teeth grabbed onto stalks of celery and chewed them right up.

Photo: Anthony Cramp

Mint leaves, on the other hand, were spit out whole; they were too light for Mr. J to grasp, even when the plunger pressed the leaves extra hard against the teeth. While Mr. Juicer did a great job, it made an undignified racket: djuh-djuh-djuuuuuh times twelve–a sound my husband could not abide.  He said it set his teeth on edge every time he heard it grinding, no matter what the results.

Mr. Juicer’s extracts dripped into a special container in variegated, psychedelic rings.  The colors were astonishingly beautiful:  bright orange (carrots), pale pink (grapefruit), woodland green (kale & spinach), celadon (celery & ginger), and deep purple (blueberries, blackberries, red cabbage).

But when stirred, the extractions lost their vivid colors and become violently green or murky brown. Or, as my husband puts it, they looked like a juice only a mother could love.  And so it was. I lovingly documented every one of my creations, fresh from the juicer. I admired the array of vivid colors. I over-posted them on Facebook, every day.

Unsure about foraging other wild greens, I tried improving my diet with ingredients found at the grocery store. I added spoonfuls of various superfoods, such as ground flax, to increase the nutritional value of the juices.

Flax sank to the bottom of my glass in a gelatinous glop which later went floop! down the Insinkerator. Chia seeds swelled to look like icky frog spawn. Paddle cactus, added during Lent, made the juice slimy. According to Superfoods author David Wolfe, maca power improves libido and builds muscle mass, goals which attracted me.

“Two tablespoons of Maca powder a day,” he claims “are necessary to make a noticeable difference.”

But this proved stinky.

Having juiced most of the dandelions in my yard, I began to look at other weeds with a large thirst. The cleaver was cleaving to everything. The prickly lettuce had great burgundy stems which towered over basal rosettes. The few dandelions left in my yard were too near the curb, probably contaminated by cars and dogs. Yuck!

I confess:  I began to eye the next door neighbor’ healthy crop: their yard bristled with dandelions. With gardening trowel in hand, I sneaked just over the property line, dug up plants, patting the dirt back over the holes, hoping no one would notice. They did not.

As I became more experienced at juicing, I worried Mr. J. was inadequate, no longer meeting my needs. I campaigned my husband for an 800 JEXL Breville–a high-end masticating juicer with a micromesh filter, 1000 watts of power and 13,000 whirs per minute.

“Over 40,000 filtering pores ensure smooth and delicious refreshment,” claimed the manufacturer, making me salivate.

Walking in the thigh-high, possibly-edible, greens in the front yard one morning, I told my husband that my coveted blender was on sale at Macy’s, 40% off.

What do you need another juicer for?” my husband asked, oblivious to both the merits of a new juicer and the birthday hint. How could I make  him understand that more powerful juicers produce longer lasting, healthier nectars? That newer juicers do not produce froth so the extract does not oxidize as quickly.That they also extract more vitamins out of the greens.

Juicing beets?” I said. I considered deliberately burning out the motor on my sturdy Mr. J.

Worse, my husband had a colleague due for lunch the next day, and wanted the yard to look nice. He was hell-bent on digging my weeds all up.

“They’ll grow back,” he assured me, pulling up a sow thistle by the roots. I was losing my weeds, with their pretty frilled leaves wound around smooth, ridged stems, and he ignored me entirely. I slipped my hand into his pocket.

These could be superfoods,” I murmured into his ear.

I guess we can leave some,” he said. “But the big ones are probably bitter.” He took out the hoe and plugged in the weed eater.

Why don’t you juice the aloe?” he prodded me. This was easier said than done. It is necessary to filet the aloe and the centrifugal force of Mr. J’s little basket flings most of it to one side anyway. I did not plan to juice the aloe. I furrowed my brows and deepened the creases there.

Put stakes next to one you want to keep,” my husband relented. Later, I would learn that we had a plenitude of Opium Lettuce whose sap can be collected into a brown goop which, dried and smoked, produces hallucinatory effects. Not so good for juicing though. My eyes landed on a grand rosette of paddle shaped leaves with soft dentition and hirsute spines, I put a stake next to it.

Good! That one is so large it passes for a bush anyways and people will think we planted it on purpose,” my husband observed. Meanwhile, the man doing another neighbor’s lawn had been watching us. He crossed the street and offered to care for our yard as well. He saw a fortune to be made in our dead lawn, scraggly bushes and tall thistles.

I could trim the bushes all nice and square,” said the yard man. He was particularly bothered by a branch from a cenizo, which poked out.

We like them to look natural,” explained my husband.

And those pittosporum over there could be rounded,” the man continued helpfully, pulling out a pocket knife and preparing to cut down my staked, bush sized, weed.

Stop,” my husband exclaimed just in time, “my wife is letting this one bloom to find out if it is edible.

Oh, none of those are edible,” the yard man pronounced more decisively than the ethno-botanist had said they were. “I charge $120 per month and can come once a week,” he added hopefully, before returning to the neighbor’s manicured, weedless lawn.

We’re fine, really,” insisted Kent, to the unbeliever’s back.

Photo: Ano Lobb

Squeezing my mulabanda, energizing my core, I reluctantly pressed a heel to the shovel. My husband whacked at my plants with a hoe. Soon plants lay everywhere. On their sides rested lance shaped leaves still clasping broken stems. Milky sap oozed from wounded stalks and turned yellow.

I paused for a moment’s rest among the divots, not noticing I was standing on top of a fire ant mound. Suddenly the ants were inside my boots then quickly up my pants. Screetching, and slapping my legs, I lost my mulabanda and stripped while racing into the house. Abandoning the yard and its natives, my husband followed me inside.


Photo: Lana Reed

Victoria Suescum is a yoga-loving painter. Her artwork has been exhibited at the Biennale’s of Venice, Cuenca and Panama among others. You can see examples of her work at www.victoriasuescum.com. Victoria hosts a FB group called Yoga Kitchen, a spot where members post pictures of their latest attempts at healthy eating and support ethical living.  If you want to join, message her on FB. Exciting news which currently makes her smile include: balancing in handstand for a split second, her parrot, getting ready to paint in the brand new beautiful studio which she and her husband  built themselves, getting published at elephant journal, yoga and writing friends, planting stuff to juice in a new 4×9′ box of dirt, and fun that is funny.

Editor: Lorin Arnold

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