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The pickup meal: urban foraging for a taste of our rural roots

Kim Rosen/The Globe and Mail

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The small white truck was parked on the sidewalk of a busy Toronto street. Two wooden bushel baskets of fresh greens sat beside it. An elderly gentleman appeared to be fastening a gap on the industrial chain link fence that surrounded a vacant lot. The lot was overgrown with weeds, the source of his bounty.

Ramps or dandelion greens, I wondered, as I drove by, slowing to take a closer look.

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A honk from behind me propelled me forward, but within two city blocks, I knew I had to know. I turned the next corner; executed two U-turns and pulled up behind him on the sidewalk. He was about to close the hatchback.

"Hi!" I yelled, running from my car.

I guess I can't blame him for being frightened.

"Dandelions," I said, checking out the serrated green leaves in his baskets. Or tarassaco, as my mother-in-law calls them. The Italians also refer to this springtime delicacy as dente di leone, lion's teeth. They were in perfect form, young and tender – not yet gone to flower.

"Yes," he said. I think he was deciding whether I owned the empty lot. Then his eyes looked past me, and incidentally past my car, packed to the brim with paper towels from Costco. I realized two things: He was on the lookout for police cars now that two of us were illegally parked, and he believed real foragers don't buy groceries at Costco.

"They look perfect." I tried again.

"You pick 'em up, too?" he asked. His grey eyebrows rose in disbelief.

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"I do," I said. "But these look better than mine this year."

I waited for my fellow forager to offer me a small bunch. He had so many, after all. But he simply nodded in agreement, shut the hatch and got into his car. I think I heard the locks click. And I think I imagined him saying, find your own vacant lot.

I drove away convinced he sells his dandelion greens to restaurants. That's why he didn't share. Raw, sautéed with garlic, in a dough crust? My mouth watered. Maybe the greens were destined for Café Boulud? Daniel Boulud is a chef who appreciates foraged food – he even has a chief forager for his New York restaurant, a career I'm seeking in my next life.

How did I get here? The dandelion is the first flower my mother introduced me to when I was a toddler. It was not a noxious weed on our lawn, but one of my first toys.

"Look for the longest stems," Mother said.

I picked a handful, the milky sap sticking to my fingers.

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"First lay three together and start a braid. Then add a new one, and another, and another." The yellow chain grew from her fingers.

I wore those yellow necklaces for days; Mother stored them in the refrigerator at night to keep them fresh. Sometimes they were bracelets, often they were crowns.

I rejected plants as a rebellious teenager. My parents did their best to maintain their European rural ways in their adopted Canadian city. I was appalled at the annual half-a-cow and half-a-pig they purchased and butchered in our garage so that the freezer remained stocked for the winter. I pretended my father's homemade smoker didn't exist, despite the smell of sausage wafting from our yard.

"No, I don't smell garlic," I'd say to my friends as we cycled around the block, their noses scrunched.

I didn't help my mother in her beloved garden, or with the summer vegetable canning. I didn't dislike the garden – I was indifferent. It ruled our household activity and provided food. Mother linked its abundance to the spring delivery of a truckload of sheep manure. My parents tilled it into the dry prairie soil for weeks, and they ended each day reeking, their clothes covered in brown smudges.

"No, I don't smell anything," I'd say to friends as we played in the nearby park. I wished my family didn't produce embarrassing smells.

Eventually, I escaped to the fashionable city of Montreal to attend university, and met my husband years later. Also the child of immigrants, he understood where I came from because he came from the same place. His childhood yard smelled, too – pungent herbs and fermenting grapes. His parents' life revolved around the seasons and his uncle's homemade sausage rivalled my father's. Together, we left it behind for a downtown Toronto condo that overlooked uptown.

A decade into city life, nostalgia for trees and grass overwhelmed us. We found a compact house with a compact yard, which led to a larger house and yard, which led to a smaller house with an even bigger yard that over time became my dream garden.

"What an exquisite stench," I often tell my husband when I hoe through my own compost pile of rotten fruit and coffee grounds.

But it is beyond our yard that I have discovered the idyllic tastes and smells of urban foraging. Sidewalk cracks offer tiny purslane and chickweed leaves for salads. Gingko berries from local parks, soaked, and baked, will help memory. Sumac berries make a thirst-quenching lemonade. Even invasive knotweed stalks taste like rhubarb, but better. So do young cattail shoots from nearby ravine bogs.

So buon appetito, mysterious grey-haired man in the white truck.

I won't divulge the location of your lot, and I hope a strip mall isn't built there soon.

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