Before the days of antibiotics and multivitamins, the arrival of spring meant the end of eating heavy winter foods like stored grains and salt pork. But during this time of year, early settlers of America also celebrated the arrival of spring greens or "tonics" such as mountain mint, chickweed, and wild sorrel for their supposed health benefits.
The Farmers' Almanac, an annual compendium of astronomical and agricultural predications, says these types of wild plants were thought to aid digestion, "purify the blood, cure scurvy and ague, combat rheumatism, and repel kidney stones."
According to Atlanta farmer/forager Chris Clinton of Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet, "... all kinds of native plants that were used by the Creek and the Cherokee, and lots of plants that came over with the settlers from Europe and Asia, have been forgotten."
Last year, Clinton, his partner Isia Cooper, and chef Ryan Smith of Staplehouse hosted a spring tonics-inspired benefit dinner at Crack in the Sidewalk in southeast Atlanta. It featured dishes such as a wild duck terrine with pickled duck egg, turnips, and foraged morel mushrooms, violet leaves, preserved pine buds, and nettles. Now in its second year, the dinner — Spring Tonic No. 2 — includes a total of five noted Atlanta chefs — Smith, Philip Meeker and Jeffrey Wall of Kimball House, Josh Hopkins of Empire State South, and Robert Lupo of Leon's Full Service — as well as bartenders Kellie Thorn and Shanna Mayo. Each chef is responsible for one course featuring different tonics, while guests are invited to eat at private tables or join other diners at a family-style table on the farm.
Smith hopes to reintroduce diners to these forgotten ingredients and demonstrate ways to integrate them into home cooking. For his dish, Smith has chosen dandelion roots and greens, abundant and easily accessible options that he believes most home cooks eschew because of their bitterness.
"I think especially north, northeast of Atlanta, there's this beautiful kind of jungle atmosphere at the base of the Appalachian Mountains. It's this perfect environment for a ton of edible wild plants," Smith says.
But you don't have to travel all the way to North Georgia to forage, either. Edible plants such as violets, clover, and dandelion are abundant in many Atlanta greenspaces.
Led by Clinton and Cooper, the chefs will forage many of their own ingredients for the dinner. Smith is quick to point out that no one should attempt to eat wild plants without a guide, in the form of a person or a book, to avoid eating toxic plants by mistake. Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet sells many of these wild, local foods each week at the East Atlanta and Grant Park farmers markets.
For Smith, foraging is all about a mindful connection to your surroundings.
"Not a lot of people know and understand it, and I think it's important that we tap into it and utilize it, what actually grows in our environment," Smith says. "To be able to introduce that to diners and show them how they can use it is fun."
Spring Tonic No. 2 is Sun., April 6, at 3 p.m. at Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet. Proceeds benefit Community Farmers Markets, the Giving Kitchen, and Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet. Tickets are $80 for a seat at the community table or $600 for a private table for six. They can be purchased at springtonic2.brownpapertickets.com.
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