VERDOLAGA: A WEED BY ANOTHER NAME
David was standing next to his truck at the entrance of our gravel driveway. I waved and walked toward him to exchange our usual morning greetings and spend a few minutes talking. As I was approaching him, he reached down and pulled up a handful of what looked like weeds from between the driveway’s pebbles. Instead of tossing them into the pile of recently mown grass next to him, he opened his truck door, and as I watched, he carefully placed the small green bundle onto the front seat.
I was so puzzled with what I had just seen that even before I had time to say “Buenos días” or shake his hand, I asked him what he was doing with those weeds. David said that what looked to me like weeds were not weeds at all. David is Mexican from the western Pacific coast state of Michoacán. He said that the plant he had pulled up was actually a highly prized, but common, edible herb, back home in Mexico; and that when he would come upon them working at the various Fairfield and Westchester homes his landscaping company cared for, he would pick them and bring them home to use in cooking a favorite Michoacán dish. David said that seeing the herb always triggered a deep sense of nostalgia; reminding him of his mother’s cooking and his native region. I asked him the plant’s name. Now, both David and I are thoroughly bilingual Spanish and English speakers. However, when we speak, we frequently code switch, that is, we move between Spanish and English depending on the subject and the moment. This subject was personal. The subject was from the motherland of his deep culture so David said, “Pues, se le llama verdolaga.” (Well we call it verdolaga).
Now, I have spoken Spanish all my adult life, as well as having lived and worked in Spanish-speaking countries. I’ve eaten cui a la parilla(roasted guinea pig) in Ecuador; been feted with curtido(fermented cabbage relish)in El Salvador; and lunched on mofongo(green bananas, garlic, and pork rinds) in the Dominican Republic so I believed myself reasonably conversant about a wide variety of dishes from the Spanish Speaking world. I confessed to David that I had no idea what verdolaga was.
David didn’t know its English language equivalent, but he said it was everywhere in Mexico. Later I would find an entry in my dog eared Spanish-English Espasa Calpe dictionary with verdolaga’s English language translation given as purslane. I had to look that up as well in my Webster’s. Purslane sounded medieval or Renaissance European to me, something more from Chaucer or Shakespeare than modern day 21st century Connecticut speak. For the next half and a hour, David, the michoacano immigrant landscape company owner, schooled me in verdolaga/purslane’s modern day use in his native state’s cooking.
Although, most Americans think of Mexican food in terms of tacos, refried beans and chimichangas, Mexican cuisine is in fact one of the most varied in the World. Like the food dishes of China, France or Italy, Mexican dishes—their ingredients and flavors—change from State to State and region to region . Every one of Mexico’s 32 states has its own specialty foods and dishes as identifiable to the native Mexican as the speech patterns or music of each State. Dishes like mole poblano from Puebla, cochinita pibil from Vera Cruz or tepache de Nayarit immediately identify a Mexican’s place of origin. Verdolaga, known also in English as the many colored flowering plant portulacca, is familiar to Connecticut gardeners and homeowners, either accidently or consciously.
David explained that verdolaga was as common as dandelions in Michoacán and that his mother would regularly walk into the fields near his home and collect the herb to use it as a transformative ingredient in several popular dishes. David told me how he looked forward to his mother’s, potaje de verdolaga– a kind of porridge- like soup; or his favorite meat dish, puerco con verdolagas (Pork and purslane). For this dish, David said that he would often have to join his mother to collect the almost bushful of a pound of verdolaga needed by her to season the pork. As he was talking to me about helping his mother collect that quantity of herb, he glanced at his watch, and realized he had another home to take care of before noon. However, he wasn’t quite finished with his dissertation on verdolagas and as quickly as he removed poison ivy from our yard, he flavorfully revealed the ingredients of his favorite breakfast—eggs, olive oil, the Mexican tomato known as the jitomatl, and verdolagas.
After David finished his work and after I thanked him for his learned and very personal comments, I told my wife what he and I had had been speaking about. Now she is an enthusiastic, adventurous, and accomplished cook and suggested we try to recreate one of David’s dishes. We collected more of the herb from our driveway and prepared David’s breakfast egg dish by following a recipe from a Mexican online cook book.
Although we were not as enthusiastic as David about its taste or texture, we were, nonetheless, much nourished by my conversation with David, by his eagerness to share with us his knowledge and love of cooking from his “patria chica”(place where he was born).