Indian Chewing Gum

Every spring, our hillsides in California are covered with a misting of glorious, delicate yellow flowers — wild mustard. Perhaps this is where we got our name, The Golden State.

When I was a child, someone introduced me to “Indian chewing gum.” Once summer had baked the leafless mustard plants into chalky white skeletons, you could break open the main stalk and inside was a kind of foamy, chewy dried pith. It had no flavor, but did have a pleasant chewiness, at least for the first few seconds before it became mushy and/or got jammed up in between your teeth where you couldn’t get it out.

One summer, my friend Sanford and I got an entrepreneurial bug and set up an “Indian chewing gum” stand down at the bottom of my driveway. We lived on the top of a hill — one of those mustard-covered hills I was talking about — and there was plenty of Indian chewing gum, but not much traffic. The venture was doomed from the start. Then came our ill-fated decision to add flavoring to the otherwise bland stuff. We offered two different versions — fruit punch flavor (i.e. dried mustard pith soaked in fruit punch) or maple syrup flavor (i.e. dried mustard pith drizzled with Mrs. Butterworth’s). In the hour or so we were at the bottom of the driveway, I think one car drove by. There were no sidewalks. Eventually my mom came down and bought a piece. I think she saved it “for later.”

It was a disappointing first step into the world of business. Fortunately we both rebounded (Sanford now runs a Hollywood studio).

*   *   *

I’ve always been envious of those who had my favorite wild things growing where they lived — wild ramps, morels, fiddlehead ferns, porcinis… We do have our few good wild edibles: sage, miner’s lettuce, the world’s largest chanterelle mushrooms… But it had never occurred to me before to question whether this startling abundance of mustard growing all around me, everywhere I looked every spring, was actually edible. And then this year, when it did occur to me, I felt foolish for not having thought of it before. It must be related to the mustard greens I buy at the farmer’s market — one of my favorite greens! So I did a bit of research. Sure enough, I discovered — thanks to an article in the San Francisco Examiner and a Greek food website called Mama’s Taverna — they are indeed edible, at least when picked in the young stage (before the yellow flowers appear and it becomes indigestible, long before the Indian chewing gum).

This year, the hills are already mustard colored, the flowers in full bloom, a few spindly gray/white skeletons of last year’s mustards still visible here or there. But I did manage to find a few of the young plants appearing around the bases of the grown ups. When I am in possession of wild greens, I like to cook them the way they might in places with similar greens — Italy, Greece or Spain. We in California are, after all, a Mediterranean climate.

Imogen amidst the mustard

If you can find any young mustard plants yourself, here’s one of my favorite Greek greens recipes. If not, buy some greens at the farmer’s market and pretend. Served with farm fresh eggs, it’s the perfect way to celebrate spring. Stin iyia mas!

*   *   *

Greek-style wild greens with fried eggs
serves 4

(*note: the quantities and types of greens and herbs in this recipe are highly flexible — so you can work with greens and herbs you prefer, or that are available to you.)

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, grated or minced
4 cups (1 lb.) chopped mixed greens (mustard, chard, arugula, kale, etc.)
1/2 cup chopped mint
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 tbsp. fresh chopped tarragon
1 tbsp. fresh chopped oregano
4 farm fresh eggs
flaky sea salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 20 seconds. Add greens, herbs and 1/2 cup of water and cook, stirring frequently, until greens are soft (10-15 minutes). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

In another skillet, place a couple tablespoons more olive oil over medium-high heat. Fry the eggs, approximately 2 minutes per side.

To plate: Divide greens between each of four plates. Top each with a fried egg, and a drizzle of olive oil. Sprinkle with a little flaky sea salt and freshly ground pepper, if you’d like.

Wine suggestion: a citrusy white Assyrtiko from the isle of Santorini in Greece.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andy
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 00:34:52

    Do you guys keep coloring Imogen’s hair from light to dark and have done so since she was born??
    I remember that stupid Indian chewing gum….it was gross. So funny that mom came down and bought some….HAHAHAHAHAHA. Good mommy.


  2. g
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 04:05:34

    What a brilliant idea. And why didn’t I think of it, each morning walking Jack past the hillside of mustard greens?


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