Be Grateful for the Weeds

Shunyru Suzuki Roshi said “Be grateful for the weeds you have in your mind, because eventually they will enrich your practice.” Elissa Altman describes how the same goes for your salad.

Elissa Altman
9 July 2020
Photo by Markus Winkler.

I grew up an urban child of the early, roiling seventies. My vegetables were canned or flash-frozen, re-heated to a place of flavorless flaccidity, and my iceberg lettuce shrink-wrapped and deckled in brown, having barely survived the cross-country trip to New York City from California. It had likely been picked by the hands of laborers working at an unlivable wage, after which it had been chemically sprayed to preserve freshness, tossed onto a refrigerated truck, and sent east on a trip that took four days. By the time it arrived, it was tasteless, old, and no way to introduce a child to the beauty of something grown in the earth.

Too much of anything is just that — too much.

It would be fifteen years before I tasted fresh vegetables, much less fresh lettuce produced fairly and harvested honestly, and twenty years before I could wander out to my own New England garden to gather the contents of my wooden salad bowl: red leaf, sweet Little Gems, romaine, spicy wild arugula (which, as I had been warned by the cookbook author who had gifted me the seeds, would threaten to take over everything), and early French breakfast radishes to provide peppery crunch. The salads I eat now are a far cry from the ones I ate as a child, possessing nuance and texture, personality and flavor, and less of a need to be drowned in thick, bottled dressing meant to disguise and distract rather than to complement and balance.

By the end of June, greens grace all of my meals: at breakfast, a poached egg sits on baby bright lights chard picked from a large container on my deck, and drizzled with a little fruity olive oil and a splash of sherry vinegar; at lunch, I might have a bowl of fresh red leaf tossed with last night’s tofu and quinoa. But at dinner, my salad becomes more of a dance, a balance of sweet and sour, crisp and tender, piquant and delicate. And inevitably, my dinner salads include not only what I am intentionally planting and growing in my garden, but what I am not: weeds.

In the earliest days of spring and well into the heat of summer, garlic mustard overtakes our property. I used to pull it out by hand or dig it out with a Japanese hori in a game of horticultural whack-a-mole: I yanked it out here and it came back up there. Dandelion greens, which many people subdue with dangerous weed-killer, appear everywhere. Purslane, a succulent, shows up all over the driveway. And sourgrass — commonly known as Woodsorrel — threatens to overtake our garden boxes.

The first time I saw my wife painstakingly picking it to add to our salad of sweet oak leaf and romaine, to be tossed with a delicate olive oil and light red wine vinegar dressing, I was stumped. But when I tasted it, I understood. A born and bred New Englander, she’s been eating wild salads all her life, and has taught me the concept of balance. For every low, earthy, sweet flavor, there must be a high, bright one; for every peppery, zesty one, there must be mildness to counter it. The addition of sourgrass took the place of lemon in our salad: plucked from the invasive weeds surrounding our garden boxes, its value to our dinner salad was significant both in flavor and nutrient. Packed with vitamin C and thought to possess anti-inflammatory properties, it added a high note to the low, mild essence of our romaine. The result was a perfect balance.

Too much of anything is just that — too much — be it on the plate, in the bowl, or in the ground. We expect perfection: we spray our gardens to keep them pristine, we spray our iceberg to keep it flawless, we fertilize our lawns to keep them emerald green. We have been trained to believe that all weeds are bad weeds, meant to be poisoned, pulled, subdued, conquered. Suzuki Roshi said “Be grateful for the weeds you have in your mind, because eventually they will enrich your practice.” As in meditation, it is the most difficult and relentless weeds that are also often the most enriching, and the most flavorful.

The balance is always knowing what to pull, and what to keep, and always how to live with what stays.

Elissa Altman

Elissa Altman

Elissa Altman is the author of, most recently, Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing; Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw; and Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking, and won a James Beard Award for the narrative blog of the same name. When she is not writing or cooking, she practices Insight Meditation from her home in New England. You can find more about her at