Every spring, I eat close to home

I'm going wild again, just as I did last year. It's a civilized wildness - if such a thing is possible - centered around a simple, delicious spring ritual: harvesting wild dandelion greens at their young and tender best.

For my neighbors who watch the spectacle, I suspect it's a curious sort of wildness, the likes of which folks don't see much anymore. In my case, it consists of a grown man crawling around on his hands and knees with a sharp knife in one hand and a colander in tow.

Although dandelions can be found throughout my yard, the best ones grow in the wildest of places, safe from the punishing foot traffic of my three young boys and the whir of the lawn mower blade.

The wildest spot in my yard is behind our house under the protective canopy of 50-foot pines. The trees form a natural border between my yard and our neighbor's. As the trees have grown, they've created a miniature fringe-forest ecosystem. The soil there is particularly rich from the accumulation and decomposition of pine needles and windswept autumn leaves. Just enough sunlight reaches the ground here for dandelions and other opportunistic plants to thrive.

Although these wild salad greens are only 30 yards from my door, my path to discovering them veered 3,000 miles east. I learned the pleasure of eating dandelion salads in Europe from my Belgian mother-in-law - "Mami," to my sons.

Mami grew up on a small family farm in the rural foothills of the Ardennes. Although the nearby battles of World War II were over by the time she was born, wartime thrift and frugality still held sway. The thinking was that if the land offered up free food in the form of salad greens, mushrooms, and wild berries, one would be irresponsible to refuse it.

For me, dandelion salads are not just about economy but gastronomy. Food writers often say that the best foods are those with a sense of time and place. I love these mildly bitter greens in part because I know the ground they come from and that they come only once a year. They also serve to remind me that good food is closer than we think - sometimes as close as our own backyard.

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