I’m a roaming cowboy riding all day long,
Tumbleweeds around me sing their lonely song.
Nights underneath the prairie moon,
I ride along and sing this tune.
See them tumbling down,
Pledging their love to the ground,
Lonely but free I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.
Tumbling Tumbleweeds, by The Sons Of The Pioneers.
What if Tumbling Tumbleweeds went from being the title of a classic cowboy song to being the name for an scramble egg recipe? It’s not as farfetched an idea as it sounds.
Tumbleweeds are an introduced species called Salsola tragus, that first popped us in the U.S. in South Dakota in 1877. Since tumbleweeds are widely distributed over the steppes of Russia and Central Asia it’s thought that Ukranian immigrants pioneering the great plains were the most likely vector. Once rooted in the new world the exotic tumbleweeds took care of spreading themselves. The plant is now classed as a noxious weed by the U.S. Department Of Agriculture.
The tumbleweed plant is a tender herb when young, and grows into a stiff round ball of stems that breaks loose from the soil when the autumn winds blow, so that the plant can roll across the landscape, spreading seeds. The following spring the old severed roots sprout new growth, and the tumbleweed’s dispersed seeds sprout in new locations. Tumbleweeds spread so successfully, “Pledging their love” to a virgin continent, that they soon made their way over the Colorado Rockies, all the way to Death Valley, and even into the musical top 40. Maybe the food network comes next.
I’m growing an Italian green called agretti, or Salsola soda in Latin. Agretti is a tender, succulent herb when harvested young, with a pleasing, sour taste. In Italy this herb is used chopped and tossed in salads or sauteed with onions to slip into omelettes. The family name Salsola comes from the Latin “salsus”, meaning salt, because the various Salsola family members can tolerate very salty soil. The tumbleweed’s tolerance of, and even appreciation for, tough conditions, helped the plant spread aggressively across the American West.
The Italian Salsola soda I’ve planted in my fields grows with the vigor of a weed, just like its Russian cousin Salsola tragus. But agretti seeds are hard to find in the States, and costly to import. Young tumbleweeds have a similar texture and flavor to agretti, and are often eaten back home on the steppes, cooked like spinach. I’m going to grow out some of my agretti seeds to maturity and harvest a seed crop so I’m not so dependent on imported agretti seed. I’m also going to drive out to the Panoche Valley, east of Hollister, in the fall and gather the seed of some tumbleweeds as they go tumbling past.
The Panoche Valley is a very quiet spot, hidden in the hills between Hollister and the San Joaquin Valley. I like it. With film, when directors want to suggest loneliness and rootlessness one device they occasionally resort to is to show a tumbleweed rolling across the screen, just as the Country and Western musical group, The Sons Of The Pioneers, used the tumbleweed to suggest a relationship between loneliness, rootlessness, and freedom.
In the ideal Italy of the past, or in the re-imagining of the future that The Slow Food Movement is promoting from it’s base in Italy, food is more than fuel for a restless body. Our daily meals can be reaffirming moments that strengthen our ties to tradition, to family, to seasons and to places. We’re all sons and daughters of pioneers here in America, and we’ve changed our landscape just as it has changed us. Someday we will understand our freedom as the choice to take root and to take responsibility for our behavior in this community of plants and animals that sustains us.
When that day comes, a weed will simply be a plant out of place, instead of any old plant we don’t understand or pay attention to unless it’s to scrape it off the landscape or spray it into submission. It’s an ideal world I’m talking about, I know. But, with agretti, the Italians learned to cook an alkali tolerant weed and transform it into a treat, so why can’t we learn to savor our own landscape? You’ll know that we’ve learned how to “pledge our love to the ground” when a traveler can pull off of I-5 at dawn on the way to or from L.A., and buy a tasty, fresh, local, braised tumbleweed taco for breakfast.